Oct 12 2006

Winning the Technology Grant

In today’s lean economic times, successful grant writers can be rainmakers for school technology programs. Here’s how you can put the top funding secrets to work for your district.

Sometimes a dire need can be a great source of ingenuity: When Superintendent Dennis Bruno arrived in rural Pennsylvania’s Glendale School District in 1997, he discovered that the school system’s technology program was embodied in two dozen vintage mid-1980s Apple IIe computers. With no network, no Internet and no Web access, Bruno had his work cut out for him. He was hired as the district’s director of curriculum and instructional technology, and later he moved into the district’s top job.

“I knew where I was going because there wasn’t anywhere to go but up,” he says.

In ushering Glendale’s technology program into the information age, Bruno met the same challenge faced by many school districts across the country: funding. The Glendale school system could not afford to implement the technology it so desperately needed. Located in a remote and hilly area of the state, where the average annual household income hovers around $17,000, the one-building school district had no cash for IT.

“We’re in the middle of nowhere here,” Bruno says. “We have no cell phone coverage, and it takes an hour just to drive to the nearest McDonald’s.”

Bruno realized that grant money could hold the key to Glendale’s technology upgrades. But with scant knowledge of the intricacies of grant writing, Bruno’s initial grant proposals met with consistent failure: “I wrote 18 grant applications in my first year and didn’t get any of them funded,” he says. “So I decided I had to do a better job. I took classes in grant writing and got my certifications. And I kept trying and trying.”

Bruno’s persistence paid off. The next year, he submitted nine grant proposals—seven of which were funded for a total of $1.8 million. And the grants kept coming.

Today, the 903-student district boasts more than 700 notebook and desktop PCs, electronic whiteboards in every classroom, a fiber-optic backbone network, wireless Internet access throughout the district and several innovative instructional projects employing cutting-edge technology, such as wireless Tablet PCs. Glendale paid for all of it with grant money.

But Bruno still wants more for Glendale’s students. In true bootstrap fashion, he began last fall to extend the district’s wireless Internet access—and its online curriculum resources—to families who live within a 10-mile radius of the school building.

To facilitate community access, the district constructed its own network of microwave antenna towers in partnership with a local firm, using 900 megahertz (MHz) radios to transmit the signals to each home. What’s more, Bruno plans to scale up this project to encompass as many as seven adjacent school districts and up to 3,000 families within two years.

Incredibly, Glendale financed each one of these endeavors with grant money—an average of $60,000 in grant funding per month, totaling almost $3.8 million since 1998. How does Bruno do it? His philosophy is simple: “If you don’t ask for the money, you won’t get it.”

Investing in the Future

The old adage “You can’t get something for nothing” applies here. The first step to a successful grant-winning strategy is to make a serious investment in grant-writing expertise, Bruno and other accomplished grant writers say.

Many school districts choose to nurture in-house talent in the form of a trained and certified staff member who is responsible for shepherding the grant proposals. Others use a team approach in which several staff members collaborate on applications. A third option is to outsource the grant writing to a knowledgeable consultant.

“School districts that invest money in seeking out grants and managing their applications for funding will find that it tends to pay off,” says Sara Fitzgerald, vice president of communications at Funds For Learning, a Virginia consulting firm. “In our experience, those who make a dedicated effort are the most successful.”

Take Calcasieu Parish Public Schools in Lake Charles, La., for example. Sheryl Abshire, the school district’s technology coordinator, is a nationally recognized consultant on grant funding with an enviable track record of successful grant applications.

“Especially in large school districts, the grant writer is a position that can actually make money for the district,” Abshire says. “Since we hired our own full-time grant writer four years ago, our district has brought in millions of dollars. That has meant that the rest of us can use our time to look at project design and partnerships, while the grant writer focuses on some other aspects of the process.”

Like Bruno, Abshire took an entrepreneurial approach and sought grants when other funding was difficult to obtain. “I began grant writing in the late 1980s when I realized that we had to become education entrepreneurs in order to get our hands on some of this new technology and support the work of teachers,” she explains. “Louisiana is typically in the bottom five states in terms of school funding, so I knew we needed to think creatively in order to get things done. We took charge.”

Last fall, Abshire won a $326,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education to build a community technology center designed to help dropouts fulfill enough requirements to earn a traditional high school diploma while simultaneously learning marketable digital video editing skills. “Today’s employers will prioritize a high school diploma over a GED,” Abshire explains. “We wanted to give all of our kids that edge.”

Building a Team

If your school or district can’t afford a full-time grant writer, a good alternative is to focus on building a strong grant-writing team to share the responsibilities, Abshire suggests.

“Shared responsibility allows different people with similar interests and skills to step up and take the lead at different points in time,” Abshire says. “This also helps build capacity in the building and creates a vested interest in maintaining the grants program. Plus, if someone leaves the district, the expertise doesn’t walk out the door.”

A principal or district-level administrator should champion the grant-writing team and provide logistical support, Abshire advises. “At the school level, the principal should take the lead and say, ‘We need this to happen, and I’m going to support it and make things easy for you,’” she says.

One of the ways a principal can provide support is by hiring substitutes or stepping in personally to teach classes when members of the proposal team are working on deadlines to complete grant applications, Abshire adds.

For districts and schools lacking proposal writers, grant experience and time, outsourcing some grant-writing tasks to experienced consultants may be an effective solution. Stephanie Edwards, an independent grant writer, has been writing grant proposals for South Carolina’s Beaufort County Public Schools for several years. The approach has paid off handsomely for this district of 17,500 students. Since 2000, most proposals written by Edwards have been funded—totaling more than $4 million in all.

Edwards says school districts should expect to pay anywhere between $35 and $100 per hour for the services of an experienced grant writer. She bills on an hourly basis because it’s difficult at the start of a project to estimate the amount of work required, she says. As an example, she cites a recent 21st Century Community Learning Center grant proposal that required 174 hours of work and resulted in $2.5 million in funding—a good return on investment by any measure.

“For those districts that don’t have grant writers on their staff, using a consultant makes a lot of sense,” says Roy Stehle, director of special revenue projects for the Beaufort County schools. “We have a relatively small office staff, so we take a look at the grant announcements as they come in and determine whether it’s something we can do in-house, or whether we need to go to an outside consultant.”

Stehle’s annual budget for outside grant writers is just $10,000, so he parcels out proposal work judiciously. Generally, it’s the district-wide grant proposals for larger sums of money that he tends to hand off to Edwards. “The classroom-level grants are for smaller amounts of money and don’t tend to take as much work, so we can put those together in-house,” he says.

Hiring the Right Help

How should school districts go about finding a good grant writer? Look for experience and a proven track record, many experts say. Calcasieu Parish’s Abshire points out that the best grant writers combine an understanding of the needs of schools with knowledge of how funding agencies think and operate.

“People who came out of the trenches and have intrinsic leadership skills can sometimes be the strongest because they know what’s needed,” Abshire says. This is an assessment that Edwards echoes: “It’s more about the experience than the degree,” she says. “You have to know the needs of the people you’re serving.” At the same time, both experts underscore the usefulness of certification in grant writing.

Ultimately, however, it’s the will and the drive to produce better results for students that set successful grant writers apart from the pack. Glendale’s Bruno didn’t wait for someone to tell him to build a wireless community network in the rural hills of Pennsylvania. He simply found the funding and made it happen.

That’s the most important lesson, Bruno says: “Just do it!”

Four Grant Winning Strategies

The fine art of asking for money is not something learned overnight. Nonetheless, experienced grant writers have many tricks up their sleeves that can prove useful to beginners. Armed with this list of tips, you’ll be well on your way to that first successful rant application.

1. Pick the low-hanging fruit. “Go after the grants that have the best percentages. When you see that a particular grant previously had 2,000 applications and only five of them were funded, you know you don’t want to spend your time on that one. You have to do your homework.”—Dennis Bruno

2. Find the right match. “Today, with the emphasis on accountability, you have to align your grant writing with your needs. You have a much better chance of being funded if you can show the grant’s alignment with your school’s improvement plan or your district’s needs assessment.”—Sheryl Abshire

3. Establish a school foundation. “A number of school districts rely on school-based foundations to help fill funding gaps. It makes it easier to have a visible organization that can be an ambassador to the local community.”—Sara Fitzgerald

4. Write in plain English. “In many cases, the people who read grant applications aren’t conversant in education jargon. You want the reader to understand your need clearly, what you’re trying to do and how you’re going to evaluate the results. If it sounds like gibberish to the grant reader, you won’t get funded.”—Roy Stehle