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 website, www.foundationcenter.org.
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 Winning Proposals.
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 felt immediately.
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.