Our principal just informed us that the science department budget will be decreased for next year. It’s already bare bones, so my colleagues and I are interested in finding other funding sources such as grants. What do we need to know to get started? — G., Oregon
In a perfect world, schools and teachers would all be funded adequately to provide the highest quality education for our students. As we wait for this to happen, you won’t be the only one looking for external funds to supplement a shrinking budget, and many agencies and organizations are themselves facing reduced resources.
You and your colleagues should discuss your needs and make some decisions as you begin the process. Your needs may include “everything,” so you should prioritize them into categories such as equipment, safety, instructional materials, professional development (including conferences), field trips, technology, and more. Discuss your needs assessment and how meeting those needs will improve student learning. Very few organizations or agencies will write blank checks, so this will help you match your needs with the missions of potential funders.
Differentiate between donations and grants. Donations are straightforward gifts, often very modest, with few strings attached, and often from more local organizations. Grants from large foundations or government agencies usually focus on projects for a particular purpose or audience and have requirements spelled out in a formal contract that must be signed by a school official. These requirements may include periodic progress reports, a formal evaluation component, student learning data, and an itemized budget. They are usually competitive. As a grantwriter, I found that the larger the grant, the more strings are attached.
Finding potential sources is another challenge.
If your school or district has a grantwriter or special projects coordinator, he or she may be able to assist. Check the high school yearbook or sports program to see what local businesses, individuals, or agencies are willing to support the schools through donations. Some parents may have ideas, too.
Colleagues on the NSTA e-mail lists have used Donors Choose to post online requests for project funds. You may want to look at the Science category to see how others are framing their requests.
Pore over a copy of the Science Teachers’ Grab Bag from NSTA Reports at your department meetings. This pull-out section includes Freebies for Science Teachers, What’s New from U.S. government sources (such as National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Geological Survey, and the National Science Foundation), and the In Your Pocket section (with information on grants, awards, fellowships, and competitions). You can refer to the Science Education Events and Programs calendar on the NSTA Website . NSTA conferences usually include sessions on grants, too.
If you decide to seek grant funding, you may have to define and refine your goals and needs to meet the grant description. Few grants will fund “brick and mortar” projects (construction or remodeling), basic items that schools/districts should provide such as classroom furniture or consumables (unless they are part of a more comprehensive project), or items that are not related to student learning.
Depending on the funding source, you may need to describe your needs more comprehensively. For example, “We want to include more hands-on learning in science to help students attain the Next Generation Science Standards” rather than simply stating “We need microscopes.” The broader statement puts the microscopes into a larger context and can be used in other proposals in a coordinated effort. Too often I’ve seen schools take a patchwork approach to grants, with no focus or master plan. Their projects may even be at cross-purposes and create extra work for teachers. If you align your proposed activities with the school/district/department strategic plan, you’ll have a coordinated rationale for further proposals.
Give yourself enough time to gather data, create a budget, assemble supporting documents (if required), and get the correct signatures on the forms (in some districts, requests must be sent or approved by the central office). Ask someone to proofread the proposal or request and follow any guidelines on length, formatting, the submission date, and the inclusion of extra materials.
If you receive a donation, be sure to write a thank-you letter (or better yet have the students write letters) and include photos of how the funds are affecting your classes.
Above all, don’t be discouraged if some of your proposals are “rejected.” (I have a whole collection of unfunded proposals.) You’ll have a lot of competition, but when your request is funded and your work pays off in good things for students, it’s a great feeling!