Monday, May 27, 2013

Grant Writing & Fundraising in Education

I do not consider myself a fundraiser.  I actually hate fundraising.  I hate asking people to part with their hard earned money for a cause I believe in and they might not.  Charity is personal, and I always felt like a beggar asking people for anything without giving them something directly, and tangible in return.  Hence, I have and continue to always shy away from outright fundraising projects or jobs. (I do donate.)  However, I love grant writing because it creates a more mutual relationship, with mutual benefit.

I first stumbled onto grant writing my first year teaching in public school.  I was teaching a college level US II course and my students were learning about the Holocaust.  They had no books on the topic and while I had an amazing powerpoint, some fantastic statistics, and video clips of survivors, thanks to the Spielberg project, I really wanted them to read Maus, a book that had enthralled me in 10th grade when I learned about the Holocaust in US History class.  The district, like most public school districts, had already had the board approval for what purchases they would make for our school year the previous May.  At the time, I had just been hired and did not have the ability to request the book for my courses.  I began thinking of ways  how I could get the books for my class.

I decided to post on Teaneckshuls a brief statement of need and ask if anyone might be interested in buying enough books for the entire junior class of public school students to learn about the Holocaust.  I specifically mentioned Maus. I explained how they would be used and why I wanted them for my course.  Within about 15 minutes, I got 3 responses of people willing to donate.  I was floored.  I felt okay asking for this, because I wasn't directly asking for money, I was writing to people about what I would use the books for and asking for the actual books.  The donors all had family members who were in the Holocaust and understood the importance of teaching American kids about the event in a way the kids would be able to relate to, a graphic novel.  Within a month, I had at my door over 240 copies of Maus!  The kids, 80% of them Asian and knowing nothing about the Holocaust, read the book.   I guided them through it, and they did fantastic projects on it.  Many of them remarked to me that it was the highlight of the class for them that year.

Next, in an effort to get funding for the Mock Trial Team I had started at the school, I stumbled on a call for a grant by the New Jersey Bar Association (which I'm a member of).  It was really targeted towards African American urban youth, but it was my first true grant writing experience.  We obviously didn't get it, but they wrote me a nice letter explaining why.  (This is actually a good sign, when an agency takes the time to explain.  It means they see potential for your school in the future to have a relationship with them.)  Here there were people who had organizations whose goal was to actually give groups funds to help these groups for a stated purpose.  It wasn't like begging, it was like asking for something that someone was offering and doing something in return.  It was a transaction, we had to fulfill certain requirements or we wouldn't get the funds.  Ironically, I felt good about being rejected that time round.

My social studies department at the time decided to collaborate on a grant for International Affairs called the Goldman Sachs Grant; it was worth about 100K. (This is actually not the largest grant I have worked on.) As the only teacher in the department with significant coursework in international law, I was asked to create an international law course.  I reached out to my international law professor at Fordham University Professor Sweeney.  He and I communicated about the course he taught and he gave me advice on how to make my course more appropriate for high school students.  I literally spent 30 hours or more creating the material for the course that would be submitted to the grant agency and used to run the actual course.  I culminated the course with an open book law school type exam with a fictitious complicated international law situation students had to analyze in a legal brief.  The course was over-scheduled with students virtually begging to take it and a resounding success.  After much more work by the department and a tour of our school, we got the grant!  PBS actually came and filmed my course, and I went on to teach an international affairs elective the following trimester.

Since then, I have worked on about thirty other grants, some tremendously successful, some not, but all tremendous learning experiences.  Not just for me, but also for the schools I work for because they enable us to re-evaluate where we are going, where we want to go, and what we want to change.  It enables us to brainstorm about how to make that change possible.  Often, just working on the grant enables us to create better efficiencies in our school or reach out to people in the community who offer assistance in the very areas we are writing the given grant for.  A good grant is one that enables the school to create a relationship with the grant agency that is mutually beneficial.  A good grant agency is not a good grant agency for every school.  It is like a marriage.  The agency has to have the right goals and objectives in giving over the grant that fit with your school.  The grant has to really help the school, not just in the short run, but in the long term.    I will talk more about this in the weeks to come.  The "shidduch" (match) between the charitable organization and the school.  Stay tuned!