Funding | Feature

6 Tips for Grant Writing Success

Lana Bellew knows what it takes to write a successful technology grant. As a grant writer for four different Alabama school districts, Bellew is a Santa Claus of sorts for institutions that need technology equipment and software to educate their 21st century learners.

Bellew proved her worth recently when she worked with Deana Williams, director of curriculum and professional development for Attalla City Schools in Attalla, AL, to secure the funding needed to buy 10 iPads that are being used by administrators, teachers, and students.

The purchase came on the heels of a similar procurement of 20 iPads, all of which are dedicated to the district's after-school, 21st Century Community Learning Center Program. The program provides funding for community learning centers that offer academic enrichment opportunities during non-school hours, with an emphasis on students who attend high-poverty and low-performing institutions.

"We revised the 21st Century grant (which totaled $250,000) that we already had, and combined that funding with some existing technology money from a Recovery Act grant," said Bellew. "We used the funds to buy the 10 new iPads and to get everyone trained on how to use them."

Some of that training was handled via "book study," with teachers downloading e-books to the iPads and then using the material on an ongoing basis. The iPads serve multiple purposes on campus. For example, software has been loaded on them that allows teachers to alert parents, students, school personnel, and emergency workers when incidents and important events occur.

The iPads cost Attalla City Schools about $7,000, including the equipment and training, and represent just one small accomplishment on Bellew's track record as a grant writer. To boost the four districts' chances of winning the awards, Bellew said she devotes much time and effort to the due diligence and research involved in the grant process.

"I spend hours poring over the grants that are available out there, and finding ways to match them up to the districts' needs," said Bellew, "and figuring out how to make the money stretch across multiple initiatives." Bellew makes up a grant calendar that she uses to track available grants, record grant submissions and document both successes and failures.

Bellew's grant selection process also depends on the size of the award and the competition. "If I see a very large grant that only six schools nationwide will win, then I don't apply for it," she explained. "I also avoid any that just don't look like they will be a good fit for us." The Alabama districts that Bellew works with, for example, have high poverty rates but probably wouldn't be able to compete with an inner-city school that was aiming for a grant with similar parameters.

"If I feel like the organization is going to award the grant to a school in Harlem with a high crime rate, then I probably won't waste my time on it," said Bellew. "I try to find the best matches that will increase our success ratio, as opposed to going after anything and everything that's put in front of me."

Once she receives the grant details, Bellew said it typically takes a month to complete the application and then at least three to four months before the decision is made. Calling the grant writing process "more talent than skill," she advised other professionals to take a formal class on the process to learn valuable tips and strategies. She said even with that education, however, teaching someone how to do it "is a lot like teaching a non-artist how to paint a picture."

Lana Bellew's 6 Tips for Successful Grant Writing

  1. Steer clear of grants that are not a good match for your school or district.
  2. Take the time to learn about available grants, and then figure out how to match them up to your school's needs.
  3. Look online for past winners, and compare and contrast those recipients and their needs to your own unique situation.
  4. Make up a grant calendar and use it to track existing and potential grant opportunities.
  5. Take a formal class in grant writing to learn the fine points of the process.
  6. Be ready to allocate four to five months to writing each grant, and then waiting for a response.

"You might be a good writer, but if you can't attract the attention of the person who is making the award decision, then your words will be useless," said Bellew. "You really have to be able to paint a picture and create a story around your school's needs, and in a way that matches what the awarding organization wants to accomplish."

When writing grants, Bellew said, she also avoids using acronyms and jargon used by educators and instead sticks to simple, straightforward verbiage. She said she envisions a reader who has no technology background and who isn't an educator and always researches past winners before hitting "send" on the application.

"If you see that past awards have been slanted to one group or another, you can pretty much determine what the organization is looking for," said Bellew, who most recently used these strategies to apply for a Verizon grant that--if awarded to her district(s)--will be used to purchase more technology and fund additional connectivity.

Also on Bellew's grant calendar right now is a state award that will pay the salary of a new technology integration specialist. "It's hard to plan professional development in the off-hours, so we want someone who can be devoted completely to this task," said Bellew. "We're pretty excited about this because we really need someone who can work directly with our teachers, and help them adapt to the technology that we're implementing."

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