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Tips for Getting Your Technology Projects Funded

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Editors' Note: Nickie Weaver and Sheila Fernley have years of experience in creating - and then finding the funding for - projects in technology and education. In this article, they aggregate their years of experience applying for - sometimes successfully - grants. Their most recent and most complex project is Irving.net, a portal for the schools, a community college, and other aspects of the community of Irving, Texas. The article provides suggestions, tips, and hints in applying for funding for technology-based projects with specific examples drawn from Irving.net ( www.irving.net).


With the passing of the No Child Left Behind Act and the Enhancing Education Through Technology Initiative (Ed Tech), the application and administration of federally funded programs has and continues to change. The changes from NCLB directly affect state funding for technology, especially as that funding trickles down from the federally mandated act. NCLB also has had an effect on funding from various foundations. We will first look at these funding sources, and then look at specific steps you should take in applying for money through grants. Two points are important no matter what grant or source of funding you are looking at:

1. Follow directions. This includes everything from large concerns such as being sure to address the goals of the grant or foundation as they request, to small concerns such as the number of words allowed for each section.

2. Think about the long term. We address this under sustainability, but remember that very few grants provide funding for the life of the project. What will you do when the grant monies run out?

Federal and State Funding

One of the changes in federal and state funding since the enactment of NCLB includes the increased focus on academic achievement in nearly every grant program. Some educational programs were impacted by funding cuts while others were combined into a single program. The administrations of some educational and technology-based programs have also changed. The most recent and significant change is the creation of the Advanced Education Technology Initiative last October between the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Commerce. As a result of this initiative, an Interagency Working Group (IWG) on Advanced Technologies for Education and Training was formed to foster development, application and deployment of advanced technologies in education and training in the United States.

The IWG is co-chaired by the Under Secretary of Commerce for Technology and the Department of Education's Director of Educational Technology, and will report to the National Science and Technology Council's Committees on Technology and Science. The IWG will examine U.S. research and development investments in advanced technologies for education and training, as well as barriers that inhibit technological innovations in these areas. Grant writers applying for federal funds that incorporate technology to achieve outcomes should stay abreast of the finding of the IWG, which may directly impact future federal funding for technology in education.

The 2001 Ed Tech program focuses on several purposes that directly impact the requirements for technology-based, federally funded educational projects. These purposes can be reviewed in detail on the Ed Tech Web site for the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Educational Technology ( www.ed.gov/programs/edtech/guidance.doc). The primary goal of Ed Tech is to improve academic achievement through the use of technology in elementary and secondary schools. Secondary goals are to ensure that every student is technologically literate by the end of grade eight, as well as to ensure that every teacher is able to effectively integrate technology throughout curriculum and instruction to improve student achievement. Grant proposals that simply provide classrooms with computers and Internet access are no longer acceptable; technology must be used as an effective part of the learning process. NCLB and Ed Tech have also impacted foundations, which have begun to incorporate similar requirements for technology-funded projects. If you want to improve your proposal's chances for being funded, learn about the focus and goals of the federal government because they have a far-reaching influence on technology funding in education.

In addition, notice the key words and common threads that run through the list of purposes in Ed Tech. When planning projects that include a technology component, it may be helpful to refer to these phrases to help determine the likelihood of receiving federal and state funds earmarked for education and technology. These terms, if appropriate, should be meaningfully incorporated into grant proposals.

Foundation Funding

Foundation grants are a great source of funding for educational technology projects and are available from two primary areas: corporate foundations and private family foundations. Although foundation grants are usually less competitive than those available from federal and state agencies, the maximum grant award may also be significantly less.

When writing a foundation grant, as with federal and state grants, learning about the funding agencies or organizations and the purpose for which the grant funds may be used is important. Foundations may have stipulations, such as geographic area, which exclude everyone outside of the targeted area. When seeking funds for educational technology projects, research large and established technology companies, especially those in your local area, state or geographic region. For example, companies like Dollar General ( www.dollargeneral.com/), Staples ( www.staplesfoundation.org/) and Target ( http://target.com/common/page.jhtml?content=target_cg_index) have foundations that provide educational technology grants to schools, districts and universities.

Planning Proposals That Get Funded

Much planning for a grant proposal must take place long before a word g'es on paper. Planning for the initial $250,000 Texas Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund Board grant, under which Irving.Net was established, began seven years before the successful proposal was awarded. While every proposal d'esn't require seven years of planning, a grant writer d'es need to plan and begin building a portfolio of data, demographics and research. Grant writers also should begin establishing partnerships and collaborations, as well as clarifying and refining their concept. Irving.Net is an Irving ISD project; however, this community network project was established through an interlocal agreement between the city of Irving, Irving ISD, the Greater Irving-Las Colinas Chamber of Commerce and North Lake College. This partnership expanded the project's resources, provided valuable expertise and created project credibility.

In particular, federal agencies and foundations fund projects that are original in concept. Once you have developed a vision or a concept for a proposal, use the Internet to research whether a similar concept has been previously funded by the granting agency or organization. Summaries of currently funded projects are usually posted by the funding source. Check within your organization, as well as with other local and state agencies and private organizations to determine if a similar project exists. If a duplication exists, study the projects carefully so that your proposal will highlight differences and improvements.

It's also important to remember that community partnerships are essential, but it is difficult to gain a commitment of support unless a clear and compelling concept is defined. The marketing field uses the term "elevator pitch" for a brief verbal description of a company or product that can be shared with someone in the short time it takes to move from floor to floor on an elevator. An elevator pitch must be compelling enough to capture someone's interest and intrigue them to learn more.

Proper letters of endorsement and support are an essential part of most funded proposals as well. These letters must come from credible sources and should include details of support and related value (i.e., facilities, services, cash contributions). Remember that acquiring letters of endorsement takes time, and some agencies require negotiations before a letter of endorsement or affiliation agreement is signed.

As a part of the planning process, identify all the funding sources that offer grant awards to projects like yours. Make a spreadsheet of these resources, including a column for each deadline date, for each date you submitted an application, contact information, Web site, areas of support, types of organizations that receive funding, etc. Do not list funding sources that exclude your agency or organization due to various criteria like geographic region. Add to this list as you uncover additional sources of funding, and remember that a strong sustainable project may have multiple sources of funding that address different parts of the project.

Writing Proposals that Get Funded

Assemble a team. If your organization d'es not employ a grant writer, identify who will assume this role for your proposal. This person should have a successful track record, an excellent mastery of the English language and extensive writing experience. A master English teacher is a great choice if no experienced grant writer is available. Next, identify a small team of people with commitment, insight and writing experience to serve as a grant writing team. When a funding source is located and the timeline meets the requirements of your project, acquire a copy of the grant application and guidelines. Make a copy for each member of the grant writing team and, before any writing begins, highlight or list all the critical aspects that must be addressed or included in the application. If this proposal is a resubmission of a previously submitted proposal, don't simply rewrite the proposal, incorporating the feedback from the original application.

Irving ISD initially applied for the Community Technology Centers (CTC) grant from the U.S. Department of Education in 2002 and was not selected as one of the awarded projects. In 2003, when the CTC program once again announced acceptance of applications, we compared the new guidelines with the previous application and found many changes that were directly related to NCLB. This due diligence paid off when Irving ISD received the largest 2003 CTC grant in the amount of $500,000.

Create goals for your project. When writing a proposal for technology funding, start by ignoring the technology. Too often a focus on the technology simply becomes a wish list. Concentrate on the needs of the audience you have identified as your target. How should the audience, their lives or their environment be different when your project is fully implemented? The answer to this question will form your project goal or goals. How will you determine if the project goal or goals are met, and how will you measure to what degree the goal(s) are met? The answers to these questions will form your project's objectives. Objectives should be as specific and measurable as possible. For example, "Students will be able to use a word processor to write a report" is not a satisfactory objective. Compare that statement with "90% of the students will be able to demonstrate at least three essential word processing skills, such as copy-and-paste or find-and-replace." Once effective objectives are developed, project activities should be easily discernable.

Communicate internally. Be sure to communicate your project idea and activities to other departments in your organization. Your organization's goals, objectives and initiatives may expand or limit the range of impact your project may have. You may already know that your project will impact the business office with record keeping and the purchasing office with buying equipment or services, but what about the staff development office? Will your project require training of personnel? How about the HR office? Will your project require hiring new personnel? What about use of facilities, custodial services, technology infrastructure or any other department support? Without communication and coordination between and among internal departments, grant projects could impose burdens on other areas of your organization that may result in challenges to project implementation and management within other departments.

Addressing Sustainability

Having spoken with the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Commerce, we have become acutely aware that the government is not only interested in funding innovative educational technology projects that focus on how technology will be used to improve academic achievement, but also those that offer a clear plan for sustainability and electronic distribution of outcomes.

Irving ISD's CTC project - Project C.A.P.S. (Conquering Academics with Parent Support - selected a software management system for this project that offers an unlimited user site license and no recurring annual license fee. In other words, the cost to continue the project beyond the initial grant year was minimized, and the unlimited user license enabled the district to serve all high school students, which is a key element of NCLB.

Irving.Net serves to bring the entire community together to bridge the digital and social divides of a diverse urban community. Sustaining a project in the initial few years of implementation is difficult for any one organization. If possible, hire a project director who has business development experience. Irving.Net is a comprehensive community project with a business and risk management plan, which includes a sustainability component.

The Irving.Net bilingual portal was developed with four different areas that can potentially provide all the necessary funding to sustain the project. Although not every project will include such a portal, organizations must think creatively when planning and writing a project proposal to include a sustainability plan. The plan must be diverse and may include the multiple funding sources that can provide grant funds during the initial two to five years of implementation. When applying for comprehensive funding for the second year of the project, Irving.Net applied for two federal grants with the potential of multiyear funding and several smaller foundation grants that could fund critical components of the project until full sustainability could be developed. An organization should not depend on a single grant to fund or sustain a project. As we said earlier, by definition, most grants are not meant to fund the entire project, so be prepared to address how you intend to keep the project going without grant funds.

Conclusions

Coming up with a list of projects or items that require additional funding is fairly simple, and funding sources can be found for almost any project. The challenge is planning and writing a fundable grant proposal. This is why grant writing consultants charge from $400-$900 per day and still do not guarantee results. Don't despair, however, because you can learn to write proposals that are funded. The key word is learn.

Create a process for keeping abreast of changes in legislation and funding sources, especially those that relate to your business and the needs of the population you serve. Continue to practice by writing and submitting many proposals, getting feedback, and reapplying for grants that were not awarded but allow you to reapply. Seek feedback from funding sources each time an application is not awarded, and heed the feedback when reapplying to the same funding source or any other funding source. Most lessons learned can be applied to other grant proposals. Review guidelines carefully, following all stipulated requirements. And remember to always follow directions.

Even the best grant writer can become too close to a grant proposal, which is why you should always ask a neutral party or parties to review your proposal. Provide your reviewers with the grant guidelines as a reference. The proposal should clearly describe your vision and all components should be linked throughout the proposal. For example, if you say that the project will include an independent evaluation, did you provide a description of the evaluation and areas to be measured, did you include the evaluation process in the timeline, and did you include the cost of the evaluation in the budget? Also, make sure that the budget is realistic and accurate. Is the total budget amount realistic for serving the proposed number of people? Did you clearly define how many people would be served? Do not create a budget where the administrative costs are greater than the amount that will be used to serve the target population.

Let us leave you with a tip from our grant writer's guide, currently being written for educators like you: "First impressions do count. Your mother probably told you a hundred times to always make a good first impression, because people make judgments based on first impressions. Grant reviewers are no different. The majority of proposals are rejected because of the way in which they are presented."

Funding is competitive, so don't compete against yourself or your own organization. Educate yourself, plan, prepare and execute by following directions and submitting a proposal that is exactly what the funding source wants.

Author Contact Information

Nickie Weaver
NWeaver@irvingisd.net

Sheila Fernley
SFernely@irvingisd.net

This article originally appeared in the 01/01/2004 issue of THE Journal.

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