by Deborah Orr

Why apply for a grant?

Applying for a grant from a foundation or public charity can be an effective way to supplement your PA/PTA fundraising. Grantmakers can be corporate or private foundations (such as Target’s education grants, the Home Depot Foundation or the Rockefeller Foundation), public charities (e.g. Brooklyn Community Foundation), or federal, state or local government programs (like the DOE’s School Wellness Council grants).

A proposal is a narrative request for funding that is submitted to a grantmaking organization. Usually foundations will announce their request for proposals at least a few months before the application deadline, and will have detailed guidelines for submission on their website. In a proposal’s narrative, you are telling the story of your school, why your school community would benefit by adding or expanding a specific program, and how this program falls in line with the grantmaking vision of the foundation. Each grantmaker has its own criteria for qualification, its own format specifications for writing the proposal, and varying submission deadlines, which can occur on an annual, bi-annual or quarterly basis.

Most grantmakers have one or more specific areas of interest, such as education, public health, the arts, etc. The main work of grant-writing can be broken down into three parts: researching the many grantmaking organizations out there to find those with the vision and grantmaking focus that matches up with your school and project; gathering all the necessary information on your project and writing/submitting the proposal; and the post-submission followup, whether or not your school’s application was successful.

Researching, writing and submitting a grant can be time-consuming, but a well-targeted proposal can really pay off – giving your school anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand dollars, all without any upfront expenses, overhead, or expenditure of time and resources from your fellow PA/PTA members.

How does grant writing fit into my PA/PTA’s fundraising plan?

Pick a specific project that is either in a start-up or expansion phase. For a project where outside funds such as grants will be the primary funding source, you may want to keep the budget within the small-to-medium range, or break it down into phases so not all the money needs to be raised at once.

Decide whether your school is interested in partnering with a local non-profit in order to create an enrichment program. These programs are excellent funding candidates as well. Successfully funded partnerships have been created between local schools and dance companies, theater workshops, and other arts or science-based nonprofits. Often these non-profits are experienced in fund raising and may be able to help in the grant writing process.

What types of projects are good prospects for grant-seeking?

There are exceptions, but grantmakers generally do not fund capital projects, major renovations, basic supplies or non-specific PA/PTA fundraising needs. And while there are no hard and fast rules, it’s generally a good idea to consider projects that are separate from regular instruction, enhance the school curriculum, and will appeal to a funder with a certain area of interest, such as “arts in the schools.” Below are a few examples:

  • School garden (creation or expansion)
  • A school-wide poetry project
  • Running club
  • Healthy cooking class
  • Afterschool science or math club
  • Dance enrichment during school hours, in partnership with a local non-profit

Eligibility: is your PA/PTA a tax-exempt organization as determined by the IRS?

Many grant applications require some proof of the tax-exempt – aka 501(c)3 – status of the non-profit organization applying; however, grants targeted specifically for schools usually don’t ask for this. If your PA/PTA does not yet have 501(c)3 status, you may still be able to apply through your school directly, as public schools are considered non-profits.

Some applications will want a copy of your letter of determination from the IRS, or they may ask for your PA/PTA’s EIN (tax identification number). Your PA/PTA treasurer or accountant should be able to help you with either of these. 

Researching Grant Opportunities

Keep in mind when researching that you are working on behalf of an individual public school PA/PTA. Look for grantmakers with a track record of funding individual PA/PTAs and public schools (as opposed to districts, charter schools exclusively, or outside non-profits that provide services to schools).

Beyond that, look for funded programs similar in size, focus and cost to what you are developing. Make sure there are no geographic restrictions (e.g. grants only made to schools in Kansas). If you can, look back at the foundation’s history and see if the funder tends to give money to the same organizations year after year, or if there’s a range of “new faces.”

If a grant is for an amount that only partially covers your budget, that’s ok. Most grantmakers like to see a fundraising plan that isn’t reliant solely on their funding. If you have other grant requests pending, or have already been awarded partial funding, it’s safe to mention that on your application.

Some grants provide goods (such as gardening supplies) rather than cash, so keep these in mind as well when determining your project budget.

You will not get every grant you apply for. Usually you will have to submit several applications for every one that you are awarded. Fortunately, most of the project narrative you are providing for one proposal can be adjusted fairly easily to fit multiple applications.

Where to Look:
The Foundation Center has a comprehensive database for grant research. If you go to their Manhattan library at 79 5th Avenue (16th St.), you can search their database for free; bring along a flash drive or print out documents there for a small fee. Their database can also be searched at several other locations in NYC, including the Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza, The New York Public Libraries in Staten Island, the Bronx and Queens, and Riverside Church in Manhattan. Look up locations on the Foundation Center’s website for more information — foundationcenter.org.

The National Education Association also lists school-specific grants, at nea.org/grants/grantsawardsandmore.html. Grants Alert at grantsalert.com allows users to search grants by state and subject, and provides application deadlines.

Look to other schools that have had grant-writing success. If you are trying to develop a drama program or a school garden, it is worth reaching out to the PA/PTA of another school with a similar program, to learn whether grantwriting was part of their fundraising strategy.

Also investigate your local civic/community groups and corporations with a local presence – if your area has a civic council, they may have a small neighborhood grants program. Banks and other businesses sometimes have foundations with grants targeted to the neighborhoods they serve. Some community-based organizations (CBOs) apply for grants jointly with public schools, so connecting with local CBOs, which often have experience with grant-writing, might be beneficial.

Don’t forget the DOE and other government agencies on the city, state and federal level. The DOE currently helps sponsor several grant programs promoting school wellness and gardening initiatives. City Council members, State Assembly members and the Borough Presidents can also be sources of funding. Government grants on the federal level tend to be quite competitive, but depending on your needs, may be worth some research. Various city agencies (such as the Dept. of Parks and Recreation and the Dept. of Youth and Community Development) also fund school-friendly programs managed by private and public organizations, so your PA/PTA might check in with community based organizations in its district.

Getting Ready to Write

Once you have identified your project, and found a grant that’s a “good fit,” gather the requested info for the application or Letter of Inquiry. (The Letter of Inquiry is a shorter document that is sometimes used to screen applicants before they are invited to submit a full application.) It’s very helpful to collaborate with a teacher or other school staff member on the information needed for your narrative. Their firsthand knowledge can provide essential detail and insight for your text. Before you get to that text, though, the first section of most applications asks for some basic information on your school and project.

Here is some of the non-narrative background commonly requested in a grant application (specifics vary; you will not need all of this for each grant):

  • Your name and position at the school, or the name of the teacher or school staffer you are collaborating with on the grant.
  • Names of other applicable school staff for a particular grant (science or gym teacher for a wellness grant, etc.).
  • Cover letter from the principal giving permission to apply for the grant and stating his/her acknowledgement of the grant conditions.
  • How you plan to cover future costs (maintenance or otherwise) for your project.
  • Basic school information, which may or may not include: address, phone number, school district, total enrollment, percentage of students who receive free or reduced price lunch, student demographic percentages, and breakdown of how many students are in each grade.
  • Number of students participating/affected by project
  • Budget for proposed project; sometimes the entire PA/PTA budget is also requested.
  • Breakdown of materials needed and itemized cost; a project timeline.

How to Write

Remember that the grantmaking board often has to read hundreds of proposals in a given cycle; they appreciate brevity and clarity, while still making the strongest case possible for your school.

Most grant applications also require strict word counts on their applications; keep an eye out for these before you start to write.

Here are examples of basic narrative sections – you will find some variation of many of these in most grant applications.

Description of Request:
The amount of funding you are seeking with this proposal, and what need these funds will be fulfilling in your school. It is best to state this as early, and clearly, in your proposal as possible. Along with your program description and, if requested, the school’s mission statement, this is your chance to tell why your school stands out and should be awarded this grant. Mention successes along with the struggles, if possible.

Often a funder will want to know if your school has a significant percentage of students from an “underserved” population; examples would be special needs students, families qualifying for Title 1 status, or ESL students. Many grantmakers prefer to target their funding towards programs or schools serving a high percentage of these populations.

Program Description:
Basically, describing the program – what is is; how often it will be held; how many students from which grades will participate; which school staffers will be involved; how long it will run, and how it will connect to the curriculum.

Beyond that, if there is any background history behind your project, such as relevant PA/PTA committee work, involvement between parents and teachers in developing the project, a preceding project that was smaller in scale, etc., you should include that as well.

Outcome – Implementation and Measurement:
How you will put this program in place, and what your school hopes to achieve from the program. Grantmakers like measurable results, but don’t promise anything that’s not in your power to deliver, such as a measurable increase in grades or test scores. This is where the input of a teacher or school administrator can really come in handy– as an “outcome,” they may anticipate benefits that a non-educator might miss.

Project Budget:
This is a very important part of the grant. You may want to write this part first, to help determine your narrative. Usually, you will be asked for a line-item breakdown and the total. If your total budget exceeds the amount you are asking for, that is okay – the application may ask how the remainder of the project budget will be funded. Keep in mind that the use of your funds may also be included in any follow up reporting – the figures don’t have to match exactly, but the funding should be spent roughly where outlined in this section.

Submission Deadlines:
No, you cannot submit your proposal or any part of it late for whatever reason. Deadlines are hard and fast for any application.

Follow-up

Declined:
If you don’t get a specific grant, don’t despair! Sometimes a proposal just needs a little adjusting and can be resubmitted for the next grant cycle. It is not unusual for a grant application to be awarded upon the second or third submission. A conversation with someone at the foundation may be of help before you re-apply. Again, it is a good idea to apply for several different grants for your project, to increase your chances of funding.

Accepted!:
Most grants require a follow-up report within 6 months to a year of the award, so they can track where their funding went. Even if it is not required, a thank you and some account of what you’ve accomplished should be sent as a courtesy, and as a way to keep lines of communication open with your funder. Pictures are always appreciated. Some funders offer “continuation grants” so that you can reapply to grow your program, others expect you to take it from there, in terms of maintenance and expansion.

This is just a basic outline to help you get started. For general information, FAQ’s and sample grant proposals, the Foundation Center has a lot of helpful information on their website. They also offer free and paid seminars on a variety of fundraising topics if you’d like to delve further into the world of grantwriting.