Whether to help with musical instrument or music technology purchases, teacher training
and educator workshops, or enhanced opportunities for students and ensembles, securing
a grant can work wonders for a school music program. One fantastic resource for educators
looking to pursue such auxiliary funding is the Foundation Center.
This New York City-based organization has amassed a tremendous database of philanthropic
entities and developed a broad spectrum of tools and information for non-profit groups
seeking funding. In addition to five central "library / learning centers" and hundreds of
affiliated "cooperating collections" located around the country, the Foundation Center
also offers a plethora of learning material and helpful grant writing information through its
SBO recently caught up with Charlotte Dion, director of the Foundation Center's New York
library, who shared some tips for music educators interested in the grant-writing process.
School Band and Orchestra: What is the first step that an educator interested in learning
more about grants needs to take?
Charlotte Dion: I would suggest, first of all, that educators start by gaining a clear
understanding of the fundraising strategies of the school in general. It is important to make
sure that they are not competing against another group, such as a PTA, or even something
happening on a district level. We're most familiar with the New York City schools, but here
we have a general fund for all of the public schools, where a lot of the large funding, like,
for example, Gates money, would tend to go. Fundraising at the local level might be quite
different. I would definitely suggest that any teacher discuss this with the principal—and
based on the principal's advice, any parent group or any other groups within the school,
or consortium of schools, depending—just to find out what other fundraising has gone in
the past and what is going on currently. It is important that a funder not receive competing
proposals from the same school; it needs to be a coordinated effort. The Foundation Center
can be a resource in that we have a very rich Web site, a proposal writing short-course, and
we also have both quick tutorials and fee-based online education courses that anyone who
can't make it to our own libraries can take.
Our proposal writing books are available at our own five offices and at cooperating
collections, which is a network of 340 libraries we work with around the country. These
books are available free at these locations, a list of which can be found on our Web site. We
have collections in every state, including Alaska and Hawaii. This will be helpful as far as
where to go to get our basic directory about proposal writing, as well as access to our funder
database and directory, Online Professional, which is available free at all these locations.
Those I would consider the essential basic resources for anyone thinking about grant writing.
SBO: You also offer various courses and seminars, correct?
CD: In our own five offices, we teach short courses on proposal writing basics and proposal
budgeting basics, and we present day-long fee-based seminars as well. So anyone near New
York, Atlanta, Washington D.C., Cleveland, and San Francisco can conveniently attend those.
On our website, we maintain a schedule of seminars that we do, and interested people
can also get that information by contacting us. We do have our fee-based courses in other
locations around the country, not just where we have offices, so that's another resource that
people can look at. There's also a great deal of information available free on our website.
The full database of funding organizations is only open on a subscription basis through the
Web, but it can be accessed for free by visiting one of the main libraries or cooperating
collections. However, there is a lot of very useful information available for free online,
including an FAQ section and a number of tutorials which can be found in the 'getting started'
tab on the drop-down menu on the home page. These include information on where to find
sample proposals and sample letters of inquiry on the Web, and we also have examples
of successful proposals, proposals which have been funded. We call these the 'Guides to
SBO: Are there specific actions that educators should take when it comes to
researching grants and writing proposals?
CD: Educators should follow the general guidelines: clarity, conciseness, making
sure that you get the names right, that you know that the person you are writing
to is still at the same foundation or corporation and in the same position, getting
the spelling right, not doing elaborate packaging, making sure you submit early,
and so forth.
If we're talking about a public school, one thing to be careful of and to investigate
with individual funders before getting elaborately involved in a proposal is whether
or not they will fund a government agency directly. Not all foundations like to fund
a government agency. Some of them will require that it go through another 501c3
organization, such as a PTA or a booster group. That is important to know before
anyone gets too far involved. It's not a legal question involving the IRS, just a matter
of the individual policies of the foundations. There is sometimes some reluctance on
the part of some funders to be jumping in where they think the government ought to
be doing the primary funding.
That said, it's very difficult to generalize foundations because they are so different
one from the other. It's almost like dealing with 70,000 different people in that each
organization refl ects the interests of those individuals that started them. It does take
a lot of research into the individual funders.
We suggest that, where possible, fund seekers do research and even try calling
the foundations—if there is staff you can sometimes get very helpful information
very quickly. This is for specific questions; we don't suggest fishing expeditions
where you call up and ask, "What do you fund?" That's where we come in and you
do the research ahead of time. Of course, many foundations now have websites,
and those can be very helpful. Sometimes that's where annual reports are located,
so it's useful to look there as well, and you can try to find out as much about the
application process as possible. And then if you're going to call, you can call with
very specific questions.
SBO: Do you think that the current economic uncertainty is likely to affect
foundations and their capacity to fund grants?
CD: It's definitely going to have an effect, and more so on some foundations than on
others. We can't predict long-term what's going to happen. There is information on
our Web site, so I would refer you to our research advisories about what's happened
in past periods of economic downturns. It's very individual depending on what a
foundation may be invested in and the policy of the individual foundation about
how they're going to restructure grants, or spread grants over more years or focus
only on their current grantees or continue to accept new grantees. I would really
suggest that fund seekers think about these questions early on in the process, do
research, and perhaps ask the foundation directly whether or not they are going to
be considering any new grantees. Certainly foundation endowments are affected,
and foundation giving is likely to be affected as well. Although I should mention that
foundations do generally use rolling applications, so that the total effect may not be
SBO: With regard to the tightened economy, are there any other additional steps
that educators might want to take in the grant-preparation process?
CD: I like to quote Hildy Simmons, who was for many years in the field of
philanthropy and a fundraising consultant. She used to say, 'There are no magic
bullets. In good times and bad, it comes down to mission, leadership, and program.'
I think that is really the key: to be the best at what you are doing, to talk about
the impact that you are making so that you are making people value it as much as
possible, about the benefits of the program you are producing, and be able to talk
about your track record. There isn't any real magic formula to being successful
except to focus on what's really core to what you need to do, the most important
programs you're running, know who's benefiting by them, and make the strongest
case that you can. Also, make sure that you have a budget that refl ects the narrative
in your proposals so that there are no questions and it is very easy to tell where you
are planning to spend, what you are hoping to accomplish, and how you are going to
evaluate whether or not the program is a success.