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. The good news is that you don’t have to be a professional grantwriter to find funds for your special project or program.
How Grants are Different
Obtaining money through a grant and then spending it isn’t like earning it through fundraising. Fundraising dollars can be spent on whatever you wish—from school supplies to volunteer appreciation to inflatables for the carnival. On the other hand, as a rule, organizations award grants for special projects. Your application must state specifically what you need the money for and how you’ll spend it. Then, you must follow the plan you laid out. In most cases, you’ll also be required to account for how the grant money was spent.
Grantmakers fund a wide range of activities, so your challenge is to decide what funding you need, find the right organization to sponsor it, and then make the case for why you deserve the money.
Projects funded through grants to parent groups include age-appropriate playground equipment, landscaping, nature trails, water or 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 or band equipment and uniforms, and programs promoting sports for girls, among many others.
Once you’ve decided on a project, find the right organization to sponsor it. A little legwork at this point will save you time and resources later on, so focus on identifying a grantmaking organization with a mission your project fits into. Ask yourself whether you can work within the grant cycle timeline, the money can be used for your purpose, and you can work within the grantmaker’s payment process.
Four types of organizations that issue grants: corporations, national foundations, local foundations, and the government (primarily federal). Local organizations provide the best funding opportunities for parent groups, but any of these types could work for your specific project.
Corporations typically support programs that benefit communities where employees live and work, and they provide funding in two ways. The most common way is through a local outlet or office. For example, you approach the manager of a local restaurant and ask for a food donation for your next family night. In return, you offer the company a sign or banner at the event, a thank-you in your newsletter and on social posts, and other considerations. The manager typically will say yes or no on the spot or a short time later.
Some corporations, generally large companies, also offer grants through a company-sponsored foundation or regular corporate giving program. Grants include cash, company products, or in-kind services. Tip: When applying, think of ways you can provide publicity that portrays the company as a philanthropist in the community.
Private foundations are independent nonprofit organizations with an endowment that’s usually managed by their own trustees or directors. A single source—an individual or family group—donates money for grants. Tip: 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 aren’t 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. Tip: 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. They’re aimed at schools rather than parent groups and they’re competitive, but they aren’t totally out of reach. Tip: You’ll need a professional grantwriter who knows the ins and outs of applying for federal funds.
Select a Grantwriting Committee
Putting together your team might take a little time, but it’ll improve the chances of your grant proposal being read. If you can, be selective and choose people who work well together and want to see the project all the way through. And try to avoid working with an overly large group.
First, identify a project leader for the committee. This person could be a board member or the person you tap as the proposal’s writer. If possible, look for someone who has a strong social network who might know local business leaders or heads of organizations that offer grants.
Then, enlist someone with writing experience who understands deadlines. Bonus points if they can delegate work to various other committee members. You’ll want to use just one person to write the actual proposal so the document has the same tone of voice throughout.
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. Look for people who have computer skills or access to school and community data. Someone with a background in finance is useful because you’ll have to provide budget information.
Note: Virtually all formal grants are available only to organizations officially recognized by the IRS as tax-exempt under section 501(c)(3) of the federal tax code. If your group isn’t officially tax-exempt, prepare the grant proposal on behalf of the school, with funds going directly to the school. (PTO Today has a step-by-step guide to applying for 501(c)(3) status: the PTO Startup Toolkit.)
Corporations, agencies, and foundations get thousands of grant applications each year and are strict about proposal requirements. Proposals are rejected for all kinds of reasons, but the top five mistakes are:
Not following instructions
Missing the submission deadline
Submitting a project that doesn’t fit into the funder’s particular purpose
(Believe it or not) forgetting to ask for money
Following the granting organization’s instructions is key to getting your proposal read. Make sure your project plan fits the organization’s mission and priorities. If a foundation supports math programs, don’t request band uniforms. It wastes the foundation’s time and resources and could negatively affect your group’s credibility.
Most grant organizations have online instructions and applications, but some may still send them by mail. It’s a good idea to connect with the contact person at the grant organization or foundation and ask questions—their advice is the only advice you need for their specific application.
Clearly and concisely introduce your group and mission in the short overview section, which is sometimes called the executive summary, and don’t assume the organization knows who your group is. Talk about your group, your goal and the problem you’re solving, the outcomes you expect, how you’ll measure the project’s success, and, if appropriate, how much money you’re asking for.
Other sections will include the statement of need, where you’ll add more details about the gap you want to fill, the description of your project, the budget, and why you’re asking for a particular amount.
Some applications request cover letters, and usually foundations and government grantmakers require collaboration with another community agency besides the school. Collaborators could be a local college or university, community health agency, public library, technology center, or another agency that gives your proposal credibility. The proof can be as simple as a letter of support on company letterhead stating the organization’s role as collaborator.
Stick to character or word counts as defined in the instructions. Support letters and other attachments aren’t included in the page count and aren’t always read by the grantmaker, but include them if requested.
At this point, find a trusted or qualified person to read the proposal before you send it. If that person has questions, chances are good the foundation’s or company’s grant reader will, too.
Finally, don’t miss the submission deadline. It sounds like common sense, but it’s one of the top reasons grant submissions don’t get read.
When your proposal is complete, sign the original document in blue ink. Make sure any documents and attachments are in the proper format (PDF, doc, etc.) and uploaded to the appropriate section. Make copies of your request, record the timestamp of the upload, and save the receipt if you’re sent one.
If you’re sending your request by mail, double-check the number of copies you need to send (original plus copies) and pay for additional postage or delivery confirmation for that extra peace of mind.
At this point, you sit and wait. And, as hard as it is to wait, don’t contact the grantmaker.
Get Your Money
Funds are distributed as either reimbursements or direct grants. Each type comes with a process for payment, a timeline, specific documentation requirements, and credit and publicity requirements, and you can find details about all of them in the provisions and payment sections of the grant guidelines. For publicity, be sure to download logo files from the grantmaker’s website.
Publicity isn’t only about who funded a project a requirement for getting the funding; it’s also good public relations, especially if the money comes from a local source.
If a local restaurant supplies a meal for a teacher appreciation lunch, or a technology company funds your STEM night activities, put their names and logos front and center on all of your marketing, including flyers, social posts, newsletter, signage on all the tables, and anywhere else you plan to publicize the event. Some organizations even provide wording to use.
If the company is small, have students make original birthday cards for employees and deliver them to the company each month. Invite the key personnel to lunch at your school and decorate a special table for your guests of honor.
Place recognition publicly, such as a sign in your schoolyard that says “Playground equipment provided by the XYZ Company.” Or send a press release to the local newspaper about funding you receive from a local foundation; include photos of the check being presented, or invite them to the groundbreaking ceremony.
Ask the company to be an education partner with your school. One funding request could grow into a long-term collaboration between your group and the foundation.
Beyond publicity, grantmakers also require a final project report. Some require periodic updates, especially for reimbursement grants that use progress reports as benchmarks. They’ll ask for specific documentation, so keep all your plans, receipts, and updated financial statements and take photos.
Grants at a Glance: Success Checklist
- Network with people you know from civic organizations, volunteer activities, fundraising events for charities or religious institutions, and your children’s extracurricular events to find grants.
- Check your local chamber of commerce for a listing of businesses and industries in the same region as your school.
- Identify foundations that support your project and make contacts.
- Download or request an application and read through the guidelines to make sure your project fits the grantmaker’s priorities.
- Build a grantwriting team of parent group members, teachers, and staff members who work well together, know about finances, are good writers, understand deadlines, and will see a project through to completion.
- Designate individuals to provide school and community data, goals, objectives, and budget. Use just one person to write the actual proposal for consistency.
- If required, collaborate with a local community agency or institution to reinforce your proposal. These are often attachments to the application.
- Ask a qualified person to read the grant application before you submit it. If they have questions about the proposal, the grantmaker might, too.
- Make the required number of copies, and double-check that you have the necessary attachments and file types.
- Submit your grant request prior to the deadline. If you fail to complete your proposal in time, revise and send it for the next deadline.
Where To Look for Grants
Your local chamber of commerce may be able to identify companies offering education grants. Networking with local business and nonprofit leaders can help your group find funding or connect you with a business that provides in-kind donations.
Many colleges and universities offer grants to fund local education initiatives.
Grantmakers.io is a database that lets nonprofits search through millions of grants and research a foundations profile for free.
The Resilient Educator website lists the top U.S. education foundations that give grants to nonprofit organizations and teachers to bring programs into their schools and communities.
The Foundation Center offers a free search tool that can give you access to 100,000 foundations that offer grants.
The American Honda Foundation grants funding four times per year to improve literacy and STEM education.