Consider the role of leadership in the grant-seeking process

A recent article in the publication Education Week caught my attention because it points to an early sign of what might become a disturbing trend in educational grantsmanship.

The article, entitled “Wary Foundations Tie Grants to Leadership Stability” (Feb. 12), notes that some funders (mostly private foundations to date) have begun reserving the right to discontinue a multi-year grant award if the superintendent of the district that secured the award decides to leave before the project is completed.

I believe this article raises several important questions for districts across the country to consider before they choose to pursue grants from private funders. It also raises questions that can stimulate a healthy dialog among district proposal writers. I would like to raise some of these questions myself and invite you, the readers, to send me your comments. I’ll use your comments in a follow-up article that summarizes how some of you feel about this issue.

One of the questions this topic raises is whether it’s fair for funders to link the continued funding of a project to the district’s stability in leadership. To answer this question, you must consider the role of the funder and its relationship to the grantee.

A common problem in the grant-seeking arena is the failure to understand this relationship. By giving you an award, a grantor—either public or private—is making an investment in your district. In some cases involving national foundations and multi-year grants, this investment can be quite sizable.

William Porter, the executive director of Grantmakers in Education, a national network of charitable groups, is quoted in the article as saying ,”I think a number of foundations have felt that they’ve been burned.” Sadly, I understand Mr. Porter’s comments. Within the past few years there have been documented cases of school districts that received substantial grant awards from a variety of private foundations, yet did not carry out their projects as initially described in their proposals when the leadership of these districts changed.

Unfortunately, in these cases the funded initiatives seemed to be driven solely by one individual rather than by several people throughout the entire district. It is difficult to fault private funders for trying to protect their investment and for not wanting to have a project they support fall apart because of a change in leadership. But some people still wonder if the foundations are being too heavy-handed by tying their giving to stable school district leadership.

A related issue is the importance of the superintendent in the eyes of funders, and how important his or her role should be in guiding the implementation of grant-funded projects. It is a well-known fact that many school leaders today are changing jobs within a rather short period of time, and most of us probably could name a few superintendents who have been at more than one district during the past three years. So how do you, as a district proposal writer, ensure that the superintendent won’t leave before the project is completed? Obviously, you can’t—but you can use this issue to start conversations in your district about distributing leadership of a grant project throughout the entire school community.

By doing so, you can assure potential funders that a change in the superintendency will not automatically lead to the project’s demise. If the actions of these private foundations signal a trend, then I believe we must start these conversations if we plan to pursue funding from them.

What do you think? Drop me a line at and let me know.

Deborah Ward, CFRE, is an independent grant writing consultant. She welcomes questions at (717) 295-9437 or

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