IT Budgets | Feature

4 Places To Find Tech Funding Right Now

If you've tapped out your "usual" funding sources check out one or more of these options.

Educational funding is a hot topic this year as school districts nationwide scramble to fill budget gaps. The environment puts pressure on technology administrators, CIOs, and principals who are being asked to develop and maintain state-of-the-art facilities that meet the needs of today's tech-savvy learners.

"As educational funding dries up, and as the number of available tax dollars shrinks, districts will need to think differently about how they fund IT projects," said Joseph J. Martinelli, Ed.D., a professor of educational technology at Seton Hall University in South Orange, NJ. "Adopting a different mindset will help our nation's educational environment remain rich, challenging, and relevant."

If your school or district is facing mounting budgetary challenges and looking for new ways to fund technology projects, check out these potential sources of money for 2012:

1. Partner up with IT manufacturers. Vendors want to get their equipment, software, and other infrastructure into the nation's schools, which in turn benefit when those installations take place. The mutual advantages have pushed many manufacturers to get involved with the funding process.

For example, many will offer substantial price breaks to districts that commit to using their products and/or services for a period of time. Companies like Intel have long offered funding and grant opportunities to schools, Martinelli added, and Lenovo has extended its educational partnerships into both the K-12 and higher education arenas. The district that offers to pilot a manufacturer's new laptop model, for example, will receive deep discounts for the equipment in exchange for using--and providing feedback on--the products.

"Reach out and nurture working partnerships with technology vendors like Dell, Intel, Apple, and Lenovo," suggested Martinelli. "Colleges have been doing this for years and the strategy is easily transferable to K-12 districts."

2. Tap into local corporations. Interested in helping schools cultivate skilled, tech-savvy job candidates, corporations can be a good source of funding for districts. A new computer lab at a local high school, for example, can be funded (all or in part) through sponsorship opportunities with area companies. Large pharmaceutical firms, government contractors, and IT companies are particularly good targets. To approach them, Martinelli said, IT directors should borrow a page from their own athletic departments and teams. "These folks have been raising funds for new fields and equipment by going out to corporations for help," said Martinelli. "There's no reason IT departments can't use the same mentality to get their projects funded."

3. Request alternative financing methods. Paying upfront and in full may be the traditional way to fund IT projects but it isn't always the smartest or most economical move. Major manufacturers offer low-interest and zero-interest leasing and "same as cash" arrangements that allow districts to hang onto their precious cash when upgrading, replacing, and installing new servers, networks, and e-mail systems.

With lab computers in many schools approaching three times their life expectancy, technology administrators will be looking even more closely at leasing and other alternative financing options in 2012.

"Public schools have traditionally avoided leasing in favor of grants to avoid using 'operational' funds for IT equipment," said Jeff Hoffman, president at ACT Network Solutions in Cary, IL. "But as infrastructures age and grants remain scarce districts are finally breaking down and asking about leasing to replace their aging equipment."

4. Turn old technology into new money. The "green" movement has spawned a crop of organizations that help schools transform their used junk into new funding sources. Funding Factory, for example, helps schools earn money for tech projects in exchange for used cell phones, inkjet and laser cartridges, and digital cameras. The organization awards points that are redeemable for cash or new technology. West Boylston Public Schools of West Boylston, MA, has received more than $40,000 in technology funding through the service, according to Funding Factory, which has provided more than $26 million in funding and saved 21 million pounds of waste from being tossed into landfills.

In the longer term, learning to write winning grants is a key for nabbing big, competitive awards. This is the year that IT directors, principals, and grant writers will need to polish their skills and stay in the loop on new opportunities if they want to snag their fair share of grant funding.

"The environment has become extremely competitive," said Martinelli, "but that doesn't mean schools can't get the grant money that's out there."

Research the opportunities online, he said, and select only those that are most closely aligned with your district's IT infrastructure needs. For example, some grants are for specific geographic areas, socioeconomic statuses, and grade levels. Also understand that the process requires a team effort. "Put together a grant writer with a technology expert," said Martinelli, "and you'll have a winning combination."

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