Go onto the Internet and type the word “grants” into the Google search engine and you will be amazed by the number of results you get. In a mere fraction of a second, up will pop over 843 million separate results varying from the mundane (community improvement grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development) to the quirky (better pig farms for yummier pork). So perhaps it is no wonder that people and organizations ranging from the non-profit to the entrepreneurial-businessperson-wannabe are all looking for ways grab some grant money.
But, of course, it is not as easy as simply making a request to a foundation or the federal government. Grant applications must be submitted and — as anyone who has actually applied for a grant knows — asking for and receiving are not the same thing. “There certainly are a lot of misconceptions about grants,” says Stephen Sumner, based in Middlesex and longtime grant-writer, “but people should note that there are organizations out there that help all kinds of people do all kinds of things.”
Sumner heads a two-session “Grant Writing: How Do You Write a Winning Grant?” workshop on Wednesday, May 3, and on Wednesday, May 10, at 9 a.m. at Mercer County Community College in West Windsor. The cost is $165. Call 609-586-9446 to register or for more information.
The workshop, a perennial favorite in the Mercer County catalog, has been offered twice a year (spring and fall) for a number of years and usually attracts a wide range of attendees. “There are those who are already experienced in writing grants, as well as people who have been recently thrust into a position in which they are suddenly asked to write grants despite having no experience,” says Sumner. “There are also people who just have an idea that they may think might be grantable and want to know what is involved in putting together a proper application. We also will usually see a few people who are entrepreneurial, looking to start their own business, and are looking for help in trying to put something together.”
A common misunderstanding, according to Sumner, is that grants are only for non-profit organizations. While not-for-profit organizations — including schools, arts organizations, and community-run emergency medical services — are active grant seekers, there are also a wide range of small business grants available. “You get pretty much anything you can imagine,” says Sumner. “The important thing is that you have to do your homework before going out and looking for a grant. The people who give out money have their own agendas and you have to be able to match yours with theirs.”
There are numerous technical complexities involved in applying for a grant that many neophytes underestimate. It pays to do a careful investigation of what you want to do as well as a thorough analysis of potential grant providers.
“Before going through the trouble of applying for a grant, you’ve got to know who your audience is,” says Sumner. “A lot of people come into the workshop saying ‘I’ve got a great idea and everybody should understand.’ Sometimes your application will be judged by experts who already know the field and sometimes it will be judged by people who know nothing at all about the field. In that case you have to educate them within a limited number of pages.”
Sumner has spent much of his life involved in the business of applying for and acquiring grants. As a school administrator in upstate Jamestown, New York, he found that much of the business of education could be supplemented by grants from the state and federal government as well as private federations. “People don’t realize that a lot of grants are applied for by educators,” says Sumner. Since moving to New Jersey, he has worked as a grant writer for several educational software companies
Now semi-retired, Sumner continues to teach, both at Mercer County Community College and as an adjunct professor at Pace University in New York, where he teaches educational computing. He and his wife have two grown children: a daughter who is a former executive director of the New Jersey Society of Association Executives and currently works as a consultant for a federation focusing on low income housing for the state, and a son who is on the staff of Harvard University.
Sumner also has an ancestry steeped in business. His grandfather founded Kaufman Iron Works in New York City in 1907. “Next year the company will be 100 years old and we will have a little celebration,” says Sumner. “The company builds the gates for storefronts and fire escape windows. I kind of grew up thinking a lot about business, security issues, and administration.”
Grant writing is not for the faint-hearted or for those who are hyperactive and disdainful of detail. Time consuming and demanding, it offers no guarantee of success. Grant writing is like tax preparation or applying for a mortgage. It’s not fun, but it can be very rewarding if done correctly. Here’s how to give yourself, or your organization, the best odds of a good outcome:
Know yourself. Know what you want to accomplish. Create a mission statement that clearly points out your objective and ask yourself why someone would want to fund it. Then ask yourself if there is a need for what you want to offer. “It is important to remember that people don’t give money away without expecting something in return,” says Sumner. “They expect grants to be written with clear indications of mission statements, purpose, evaluation, and budgets. This is where people often blow their opportunity.”
Find out what’s available. What is your niche? Are you a woman who is interested in starting a business? There are organizations that may be able to help. There are also organizations that are interested in funding programs to improve community life, such as purchasing computers for a middle school, helping working mothers, or creating after-school programs for kids. Using the Internet is a good way to test the waters and see what may be available for your idea or concept.
Put your money where your idea is. Look at the big picture. “People won’t give money away to John Doe who wants $25,000 to start a business,” says Sumner. “But they might give $25,000 to a John Doe who has a community project that is worth doing, especially if Mr. Doe is funding $5,000 of it himself.”
Create a thorough budget. A detailed itemized budget is an absolute necessity. No one will give you money if you do not prove that you know exactly how much of it you are likely to require and what it will be used for. In the grant writing phase, it is important to make it clear that you can keep dollars and cents under control while realistically accomplishing your objective.
Follow directions. A common mistake in the grant application process is that many people fail to follow specific directions. “The rules in grant writing are very specific,” he says. “I was once in a situation where a federal grant was denied because there was an extra 26th page in the document that was limited to 25 pages. It never got read.”
Get to the point. When applying for a grant, brevity counts. “Too many people involved in grant writing seem like they are trying to write the great American novel,” says Sumner. “Answer the question that is being asked in a succinct manner.”
Create a grant writing team. Successful grant writing is a process and it is important to build a team. “You may be asked to write a grant even though you know nothing about the budgeting of the organization and how to price it out,” says Sumner. “So you have to find people who can help you. Many people don’t seem to realize that when you take on the responsibility of grant writing you become the leader of a team.”
Beware of politics. Like everything else in life (from school systems to newspapers to your kid’s Cub Scout troop) grant writing has a political component. “There are politics involved when you are asking somebody for money,” says Sumner. “Not realizing this is a common mistake. A lot of the people who apply for grants are wonderful people who are idealists, but they are also sometimes people who are avoiding dealing with the world as it is. They seem to want to make the world the way they want it to be.”