How to find grants if you’re not very poor

I received an eMail message from a reader who asked for a column on “school districts whose proposals, based on socioeconomic standing, don’t get a second look from grantors.” I know there are many districts that find themselves in this position, so let’s take a closer look at the issue.

First, keep in mind that the purpose of grants is to provide seed money for projects that address a specific need or problem. Funders assume you are applying for the grant because your district does not have the money available in its own budget to implement the project. Often the needs section of a proposal is worth the highest number of points when it is reviewed. You must be able to make a strong, compelling case for the need using data and statistics to back it up.

I recently had a program officer suggest that I include an explanation in my proposal as to why my client was not able to purchase the equipment we needed from its own operating budget. This was a good lesson for my client and me, because it reminded us that reviewers would be asking this questionand without any explanation in the narrative, they might assume that the organization had the disposable income to purchase the necessary equipment. Districts with a low percentage of poor or minority students face the same challenge and should explain why there is a need for funding as well as the proposed project.

If your district has a favorable socioeconomic standing, you probably need to be far more selective about the grants you apply for. Obviously, if the funder states that the purpose of the grant program is to provide services to students who come from low-income families or other underserved populations, you will have a difficult time convincing the funded that you should be considered if you have a small percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches or a small number of students who are performing below basic achievement levels on standardized tests.

Partnering with a district that has better demographics and similar needs is one way to solve your problem. If you do not have a significant population of low-income students, but you partner with a district that does, you could improve your chances of getting funded significantly. This will give you an opportunity to share resources that are available in your district with another school system that might lack them. Consider having the other district be the lead applicant for the grant, while you are listed as a partner in the project.

Rather than looking to grants as the sole way to fund your needs, you might want to explore other fund-raising sources in your district. For example, it might be appropriate for your district to consider establishing an education foundation (which I discussed in my column last month; see “Five keys to a successful school foundation, September). Or, you might want to establish an endowment or a planned giving program (which I’ll discuss in an upcoming column) if many of your alumni are in a position to make financial contributions to your district. If your community has a high concentration of businesses or industries, it might be appropriate to focus your energies on getting corporate support through cash, technical assistance, and/or equipment donations.

Last, but not least, you should take advantage of opportunities to dispel the myth that a favorable socioeconomic standing means all your students have all their academic needs met. Talk to your legislators and your state department of education, and educate your parents, your school board members, and your community about your students’ needs.

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

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