Grants can be an excellent source of funding for parent groups. In fact, millions of dollars in educational grants go unawarded every year simply because no one applied for them.
Obtaining money through a grant is not like earning it through fundraising. As a rule, fundraising dollars can be spent on whatever you wish—from school supplies to volunteer appreciation to inflatables for the carnival. On the other hand, organizations typically award grants for special projects. The range is broad, but your application must state specifically what you need the money for and how you will spend it. Then, you must follow the plan you laid out. In most cases, you also will be required to account for how the grant money was spent.
The good news is that you don't have to be a professional grantwriter to find funds for your special project or program. For many grants, simply following a few basic rules will suffice.
When you begin thinking about whether a grant will make sense for your group, consider this question: Where is the gap, and what can your parent group do to fix it? Grantmakers fund a wide range of activities. Your challenge is to decide where your need lies, find the right organization to sponsor it, then make the case for why you deserve the funds.
Real projects funded through grants to parent groups include age-appropriate playground equipment, landscaping, nature trails, water gardens, wildflower gardens (focus on wildflowers of your state), math and science workstations, computer equipment (upgrade, repair, and software purchases), support for an early learning center (for supplemental items not paid for by federal grants to the district), office assistants not funded through the school system, athletic equipment and uniforms, band equipment and uniforms, and programs promoting sports for girls, among many others.
Selecting a Grantwriting Committee
Assembling the right combination of people who can work together for a common cause is not difficult. Can you identify a person in your parent group who has writing experience? Does this person understand the importance of meeting deadlines? Can this person delegate work to the various members of a committee?
If the grant is for something to be used by the school, the principal should be part of the committee. Include a teacher who shows an interest in supporting a new program, if appropriate. Avoid working with an overly large group, but take advantage of key people in the school and community who are dedicated and dependable and who have integrity. Computer skills and access to school data can be important.
One note: Virtually all formal grants are available only to organizations officially registered with the IRS as tax-exempt under section 501(c)(3) of the federal tax code. If your group is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, you should have a determination letter from the IRS. (PTO Today has a step-by-step guide to applying for 501(c)(3) status: the PTO Startup Toolkit.)
If your group is not officially tax-exempt, the grant should be prepared on behalf of the school, with funds going directly to the school.
Grants, Step by Step
Local organizations provide the best funding opportunities for parent groups. Use this outline to give your grant request the best opportunity for success.
Become highly visible in your community. Networking is vital. Contacts made through the chamber of commerce, civic organizations, volunteer activities, fundraising events for charities or religious institutions, and your children's extracurricular events all offer opportunities for connecting with people in the business community.
Check with the local chamber of commerce for a listing of businesses and industries in the same region as your school. Note companies that are part of a franchise and those that maintain corporate offices in larger cities.
Identify CEOs, community resource personnel, or plant managers as your contacts. Call or make an appointment to visit and discuss your grant needs. Does the company have a foundation that supports education? What about music, art, sports, programs for gifted students, or other areas that strengthen the curriculum? Never overlook the number one rule in funding: The proposal must meet the grantmaker's priorities. If a foundation supports math programs, don't ask for band instruments.
Does the foundation provide a grant application? Can it be downloaded from the website or sent by mail? If no formal application is available, ask whether a simple grant format outlining the following points will be acceptable:
- What you want to do
- How you are going to do it
- Who you hope to serve
- What you hope to accomplish
- How you will spend the money
- How you will give a final report of the grant
Appoint a grantwriting team from your parent group and school faculty. As you assemble a team, consider parent group members, teachers, and staff members who work well together; people who are familiar with finances; and those who possess an expertise in writing, are responsible about deadlines, and are determined to see a project through to completion.
Review the grant proposal. Designate individuals to provide specific information, such as school and community data, goals, objectives, and budget. Assign just one person, however, to write the proposal itself.
Federal grants and some foundations usually require a collaboration with other community agencies (in addition to the school). Enlist an institute of higher education if possible. Other options might be a community health agency, public library, technology center, or other agency that could reinforce your proposal. Request a letter of support on company letterhead stating the organization's role as collaborator. Enclose support letters as attachments to the grant. The proposal length may be limited, but attachments are not included in the page count. The grantmaker is not required to read the attachments.
Ask a qualified person to read the grant before submission. Does he have questions about the clarity of the proposal? The grantmaker will have them also.
It's crucial to send your grant request prior to the deadline. If you are pressed for time, spend the extra money to send it overnight. Even if you send it regular mail, you might want to pay for delivery confirmation. Do not contact the funder after submission. Foundations may read grants quarterly or annually. If you fail to complete the proposal prior to the deadline, send it for the next deadline.
Check the number of copies required. Stamp one "original" and place it on top. Stamp "copy" on the others. Use blue ink for signatures. Keep a copy of the grant for your parent group. Provide copies for any agencies that collaborated with you.
There are four main types of organizations that issue grants: corporations, national foundations, local foundations, and the government (primarily federal).
Corporations provide funding in two ways. Perhaps the most common is through a local outlet or office. You approach the manager of a local business and ask for a donation of cash, products, or services for a particular activity. In return, you offer the company a sign at the event, a thank-you in your newsletter, and other considerations. The manager typically will give you a yes or no on the spot or a short time later.
Some corporations also offer funds through a company-sponsored foundation or regular corporate giving program. Corporations typically support organizations with programs that benefit communities where employees live and work. Grants include cash, company products, or in-kind services. When applying, think of ways you can provide publicity that portrays the company as a philanthropist in the community. Personal contact is often vital to successful funding.
Private foundations are independent nonprofit organizations with an endowment usually managed by their own trustees or directors. A single source—an individual or family group—donates money for grants. When applying to a private foundation, identify a need and show how the grant may solve a problem in a creative way that can be replicated at other schools. Private foundations typically are not a good source for parent groups, but you'll have a much better shot at one of their grants if you develop a personal contact within the organization.
Community foundations are similar to private foundations except that the money comes from many donors. Usually located in larger metropolitan areas, these foundations may support programs not paid for by the school district. You might be required to provide matching funds. It's crucial to know the geographic area of giving for community foundations before you apply.
Federal grants are offered by the government and support new programs for a school district or cluster of schools. But they're aimed at schools rather than parent groups, they're competitive, and you'll need a professional grantwriter.
The Final Step: Appreciation
When you receive a grant, particularly from a local source, it's crucial to acknowledge the organization publicly. Here are some ideas for acknowledging the grant.
- Invite the plant manager to a school assembly. Present him with a framed certificate of appreciation.
- If the company is small, assist students in making original birthday cards for employees. Deliver the cards to the company each month.
- Invite the key personnel to lunch at your school. Decorate a special table and make them your guests of honor.
- Place recognition publicly, such as a sign in your schoolyard that says "Playground equipment provided by the XYZ Company."
- Send information to the local newspaper about funding you receive from a local foundation. Take photos of the check being presented.
- Ask the company to be an education partner with your school. Invite employees to read to students during their lunch hour, for example.
Many factors determine which groups receive grant funding. Identifying the need, finding the right foundation, and working together as a group make for a successful proposal.
Where To Look for Grants
Large grants attract professional grantwriters, and the competition is stiff. Yet smaller grants can be difficult to find. The following resources can get you started.
Lowe's Charitable and Educational Foundation [see "A Grant Program for Parent Groups," below] is a community program giving away $5 million in grants aimed specifically at parent groups. www.toolboxforeducation.com
The chamber of commerce in your area may be able to identify companies offering education grants.
SchoolGrants offers free information on organizations offering grants to schools. The site also has grantwriting tips and sample proposals. www.schoolgrants.org
Foundation Giving Trends is a book updated yearly that lists the largest foundations in the United States and the types of causes they commonly fund. It's published and sold by the Foundation Center. www.fdncenter.org
The Foundation Directory Online, also from the Foundation Center, is a subscription service that provides frequently updated information on 80,000 grantmakers. www.fconline.fdncenter.org
Quinlan Publishing offers several biweekly publications of interest to schools seeking grants, including "Funding Private Schools" and "Grants for K-12 Hotline." The publications include current information on corporate grants, with descriptions of the application process. www.quinlan.com
The U.S. Census Bureau lists data on your town and state that can be helpful in preparing your application. www.census.gov
FedStats is another source of information that may be helpful to grantwriters. It's a collection of links to public statistical information from a variety of government agencies. www.fedstats.gov
It's rare that a grant program is aimed specifically at parent groups, but that's the case with Lowe's Toolbox for Education. The program will award grants to as many as 1,000 schools nationwide. It's by far the largest and most ambitious grant program ever to target parent groups.
"We value the important role that parent-teacher groups play in building successful schools and strong school communities," says Larry Stone, chairman of the Lowe's Charitable and Educational Foundation. "By making financial resources available to PTOs and PTAs, we believe we are not only investing in projects that are important to our customers and employees, but we're also helping schools build a stronger foundation for the children who will be tomorrow's employees, homeowners, and community leaders."
Grants of up to $5,000 are available. They will be awarded to support a wide range of projects, but preference is given to projects that encourage parent involvement and build community spirit.
For more information, an application, and a list of sample projects, visit www.toolboxforeducation.com.