Selecting, Managing and Marketing Technology

Chapter Five - Identifying New Sources of Funding for Technology

For many years K-12 education was virtually ignored by much of the philanthropic world, but the good news is that conditions are improving to some extent as many businesses are becoming increasingly concerned about education, and now the enterprising school district can significantly expand technology programs by identifying and pursuing alternative funding sources, many of which have been overlooked in the past. To some extent, the race will go to the swift, as the pool of available resources is not likely to expand greatly in the near future.

I. School Leaders as Grantwriters and Grantseekers

While many school administrators might rightly argue that they already have a full plate managing their buildings and current assignments, changing financial conditions now require a change in role so that innovation can thrive. Because few districts can afford to hire individuals with grant writing specialties, all school leaders must become proficient in the resource hunting game.

Winning grant support is most likely when funding is requested for a program which is impressive and innovative, yet practical and readily transferred to other districts and schools. Grant-seeking and writing, therefore, depends upon the generation of worth-while and inventive solutions to real school challenges. The school leader is responsible, as noted in Chapter Three, for creating an educational "hot house" which produces many such great ideas.

There are two basic strategies for program development. One approach begins with the program invention and then identifies a donor likely to support such a program. The other program starts with a donor's RFP (request for proposals) and develops a program in response to the RFP. Each is valid, and each thrives when an invention team is called together under the administrator's leadership.[1]

II. Big Fish in Small Pond: Selecting Funding Targets

In 1989 a fellow school administrator returned from a state sponsored workshop on applying for vocational ed funding to announce that the state was only allowing three weeks for districts to create and submit proposals and that nearly everybody left the meeting grumbling that they had no intention of complying with such an impossible time-line. We saw their grumbling as evidence that we might become a "big fish" in a small pond and managed to win more than $150,000 for our small district by quickly assembling a dynamite proposal.

In the past, most school districts have restricted grant writing to major foundations and governmental programs, and those proposals have been focussed on the most highly publicized RFPs. As a result, the competition has often been brutal and the rewards limited.

The major premise behind this chapter is that efforts are most likely to pay off when the district is able to identify funds for which there is relatively little competition or when the district is able to distinguish itself from the crowd of grant seekers by the quality and the marketing savvy of its proposals .

While it pays to search through grant announcements in sources such as Education Week, because those RFPs are also the best known by the rest of the educational world, they are the most competitive and least likely to pay dividends.

At least one or two members of the administrative team should learn how to conduct database searches which will greatly improve the targeting of donors. Databases can expedite the treasure hunt in remarkable ways. DIALOG, for example, offers three databases which could prove very useful in identifying educational venture capital. If your district does not already subscribe to one of these database services, the investment may reap a great harvest. You may contact DIALOG at 800-334-2564.

1. The Foundation Directory (cost = $60 per hour of search time) is a comprehensive directory providing descriptions of more than 25,000 grant makers, including grant-making foundations, operating foundations and corporate grant makers. You can search this database by many of the elements in such a record, identifying all foundations located in your state who contribute more than $ 75,000 annually, for example. You can also search by zip code to find all foundations within your own community. There can be some very big and pleasant surprises using zip codes as the "needle in the haystack" may prove to be a very large family foundation which happens to reside right in your own back yard. Each record provides address, telephone, key contacts, geographical areas funded and the size and types of grants made each year.

2. The Foundation Grants Index (cost = $60 per hour of search time) offers more than 440,000 records since 1973 outlining the kinds of grants awarded by more than 400 major American philanthropic foundations. Information on grants given by the foundations is useful in determining types and amounts of grants awarded, since foundations seldom announce the availability of funds for specific purposes. One can perform word searches to find which foundations have made grants in areas such as "science" and "the arts."

3. Grants (cost = $60 per hour of search time) This database, provided by Oryx Press, Phoenix, AZ, contains more than 8,200 records and is updated monthly. Grants lists thousands of RFPs offered by federal, state, and local governments, commercial organizations, associations and private foundations with application deadlines up to six months ahead.

Careful mining of these resources can provide your district with a remarkable competitive advantage in the grant-seeking game.

III. The Importance of Forming an Educational Foundation

While responding to RFPs is an important and worth-while strategy, the most fruitful sources of new funding will require the establishment of a district educational foundation which will provide tax benefits to donors who might otherwise not donate funds to the public schools. The rest of this chapter will show how to identify those new sources of funding which will flow to the accounts of the newly formed educational foundation.

By creating a district non-profit foundation, contributions may be made on a tax deductable basis by both individuals and businesses. You will need to incorporate the foundation under the laws of your state and file forms with the IRS listing the foundation as a non-profit foundation. Because each state's requirements for foundations will differ somewhat, it is wise to create your foundation by collecting the by-laws and filing papers of half a dozen other foundations already established by districts in your state. The IRS publishes detailed booklets explaining how to complete its forms. During this process, you will want to seek legal advice, but the least expensive route is to cut and paste other districts' documents and then ask for a review.

IV. By-Laws and Board Policy Issues

While foundations may be established by boards of education with some overlapping membership, the IRS requires a significant level of independence. When reviewing models from around your state, it is important to note the sections defining membership on the board of the new foundation. Are the interests of the board of education adequately protected by the selection process?

Because there is some danger that foundations might try to force programs and values upon a school district which are in violation of community preferences, many foundations have it written into their by-laws that they may only solicit funds for school projects listed and approved by the board of education in advance. They may not dream up projects of their own. This provision helps the school district and its professional staff maintain control.

Another issue worth tackling in the by-laws is the role of the foundation's board. It usually works best to focus the board on its policy functions with a small executive committee charged with carrying out the business of the foundation in between quarterly meetings. The actual work of the foundation should be conducted by a team of school district administrators charged with operating responsibility.

V. Board Membership as Strategic Tool

The members of the foundation board can be valuable resources as the district begins its treasure hunt. You and your board of education should begin by identifying the 4-5 largest national or state corporations with facilities within your school district territory or the region nearby. Each of these companies should be invited to nominate a member, hopefully an executive with a student in your schools, to the board of the new foundation. It works best if the superintendent and the board president have lunch with the plant manager and explain the purposes of the new foundation before pitching membership on the board.

In addition to representatives of big business, there should be 2-3 members who are influential in the local Chamber of Commerce, individuals who can establish good contacts for the foundation with the local business people; and there should be several board members who work professionally in the fields of grant writing, fund raising, development or foundations who can provide excellent strategic advice. Finally, there should be several members who are well connected with parent and community groups of various kinds. Careful selection can pay great dividends further down the road.

VI. Promoting Foundation Programs

Once the foundation is established and the school district has decided the kinds of programs which will be funded, it is time to develop a public relations campaign combining news releases with carefully developed promotional literature describing the projects deserving venture capital. Local public relations and printing professionals may be willing to donate valuable services to the foundation in support of this effort.

VII. Identifying and Pursuing All Potential Technology Supporters

Because there are many potential donors who are never asked to support school ventures, many school districts are a bit like orchards with fruit rotting on the ground . The first step after forming the foundation is to develop an inventory of local possibilities and then begin working to contact them to request their ongoing support.

A. Large Corporations - This target has already been discussed to some extent in the section on selecting board members. The goal is to sign up each of these major corporations for at least a $10,000 annual, repeating contribution so the foundation can count on some $50,000 to $75,000 or more revenue each year.

It is important to distinguish between corporate funds which are routinely budgeted for community relations and those which reside in corporate foundations at the national level.

The district should go after both sources, but your foundation should be primarily interested in the community relations funds which most plant managers can invest each year without consulting the national headquarters because these are the funds least sought after by other school districts. In many places schools have never asked for a share of these funds, but many plant managers are pleased to donate as a basic cost of doing business in a town.

Business leaders see contributions as an investment in good will which will pay dividends whenever the company needs to deal with local government in the guise of the planning board or any other agency. The main strategy here is to request a five year commitment to fund something such as staff training in new technologies, and to provide the company with much publicity as well as a seat on the foundation board. Each successful partnership will require skillful courting by the superintendent and board president.

The district may also seek funds from a corporation's national foundation, knowing that many of these foundations give preference to proposals from organizations where their corporate facilities are located, and the key here is to work with the local facility manager, winning her or his endorsement for the proposal and asking for assistance in moving the proposal through the corporate bureaucracy.

B. Small Businesses - This is another major source of funding which often goes untapped by school districts. The secret to this group is the development of some kind of broad-based campaign which signs up doctors, lawyers, accountants, retail merchants and various other kinds of business people as continuing donors by providing some kind of ongoing public recognition of their role as school district patrons. If several hundred agree to donate $250 each year, the district can add another $50,000 to the $50,000 mentioned earlier.

It also pays to identify benefits which might accompany the patronage along the lines of frequent traveler programs. Since training of employees will become an increasingly pressing issue for small businesses during this decade, for example, patrons might be extended access to classroom and technology resources outside of the normal school day as a cost free courtesy. Each district should work with its small business contacts to determine just which package of benefits might prove most appealing.

C. Alumni - Private schools invest a good deal of energy in maintaining close contact with alumni, involving them in major capital campaigns and ongoing support programs. We should imitate their model, recognizing that many alumni work for companies which will match their employees' donations. We should also identify alumni who have been especially successful and give them an opportunity to express their gratitude for their good start in life.

D. Parents - Given the anti-spending climate which emerges in many communities because the great majority of taxpayers do not have children in schools, parents may have to take a more active role in supplementing school budgets than they have in the past. As with alumni, it pays to develop two different types of campaign, one which is broad-based and aimed at all parents and one which is targeted directly at the most successful and affluent families.

E. Bequests - Some people reach the end of their years without any family members or worthy causes to which they might leave their estates. Lawyers who handle bequests indicate that this is a group worth identifying and courting, and it need not be wealthy individuals. Every once in a while a newspaper carries the story of a retired classroom teacher who leaves $75,000 to the local school district. A few such bequests each year would bring the district's new revenue above the $250,000 mark. The strategy here is to identify the attorneys in town who routinely handle estates and ask for their advice. It might pay to print up a special brochure from the foundation explaining why and how one might leave an estate to the school district.

VIII. Marketing Technology Proposals: Packaging and Persuading

There are many solid guides to grant-writing available from organizations such as the Foundation Center in New York which describe how to put together each section of the grant proposal. This section will stress several strategic approaches not usually found in such guides, but it is still recommended that school leaders consult such sources to learn the basics.

A. Know Your Target - Many grant writers pay too little attention to audience. The more you know about a particular company or foundation, the more successful you can be in shaping the proposal to be appealing. Using a database, you can find out what kinds of grants have they made, what rules and time-lines they have, what kinds of programs they really care about and what style they like. It usually pays to call the organization and request a copy of their annual report since that document clarifies guidelines, grant criteria and philosophy. It is often wise to meet with a representative prior to drafting the proposal in order to ask questions and test the waters. At all costs avoid the "blind date" approach to grant-writing.

B. Standing Out from the Crowd - Outstanding grant proposals are remarkable in several ways. They demand attention and respect. You will want to differentiate your proposal from the pile of requests which the funding organization routinely receives.

The Goal. Start with an idea which is noteworthy and unique - the kind of idea which will raise eyebrows. This idea should show up in the opening section which clearly states the project goal. It should be startling in its originality and its simplicity. The reader should remark, "That's a great idea! Why haven't other people thought of that before?"

The Need. Make the need for your program dramatically evident by presenting strong evidence. Too many grant writers rely upon platitudes and generalities. If you wish to close the gender gap, present numbers which document the problem in stark terms. Always supply data.

Existing Research. Demonstrate how your proposal pushes practice beyond what has already been done by reporting the results of your ERIC search conducted online to review up-to-the-minute literature and research reports. If you wish to employ multimedia as part of a social studies program to counter what Toffler calls "infotactics" show your potential donor that no one else has ever tried what you are proposing.

Measurable Objectives. When translating goals into objectives, make certain that every objective contains within it a standard by which growth and change can be objectively measured so that the donor knows what they may accomplish. If trying to close the gender gap, for example, state that "Enrollment by female students in technology-related courses will climb from its present 35% to 48% within the three years of the project."

Clear Writing. Many grant writers make the mistake of thinking that complicated and jargonistic language will impress the donor, but the reverse is usually true. The kind of prose which passes for writing in most graduate schools of education is unduly jargonistic and abstract. Most readers will be more impressed by clarity and concise prose. In fact, many corporations and foundations prefer a 2-3 page letter to the 50-60 page documents often required by the government. They want to know in simple terms what it is you propose to do and why you think their investment in your program will pay great dividends.

Persuasive writing. We need to take a few lessons from Madison Avenue, noting that persuasion touches the right side of the brain in order to stimulate appetites of one kind or another. Unfortunately, much of our formal training in writing has over-emphasized abstraction and so-called objective and dispassionate prose. Upon occasion, we need to blend into our grant proposals anecdotes, stories and words which appeal to the senses and emotions. Here again, though, it pays to know your audience. If the foundation is quite stuffy in its formal communications, it may be wise to write in a stuffy manner. If they are more playful and poetic, it is wise to mirror their preference.

Appetizing Packaging. Within reason, good taste and the rules of the foundation, you may help your proposal stand out by changing the format in various ways. You should consider printing the proposal on colored paper of a slightly different size than 8.5x11. Yours will then always be more visible. You may wish to print the proposal itself with 3-4 different colors, even if you have to pay for professional output because your district does not own a color printer. You may wish to demonstrate your technological savvy by incorporating computer-generated graphs and graphics to substantiate your case. You may wish to send along a HyperCard or Persuasion version of your proposal to accompany the hard copy version. One successful grant application to Commodore several years back included jelly beans in the mailing package along with the grant proposal to play upon the "computers for human beans" advertising theme being employed by the computer company. Recognize, however, that there are risks to such strategies and it pays to know the audience. Outstanding should not mean standing out in the cold.

Compelling Evaluation. Many philanthropists complain that giving money to schools often seems like pouring money down the drain because it is hard to see results when the project is finished. If you can develop an evaluation design which addresses this concern, you will have a definite competitive advantage. Involve professional program evaluators in helping you design this section.

Impressive Staff. Many organizations will want to know why your project team can be trusted to pull off such an ambitious project. Make sure that the resumes of each participant are tailored to fit the project. These are too often generic documents used in job searches and they may contain little information to show why the individual has the skills, the experience and the know-how to support a great project. You would also be wise to supplement the project team with representatives from business and graduate schools which are interested in supporting the project.


Scarce resources will impede our ability to explore new technologies unless we find new sources of funding for innovation. It is unfortunately true that innovation is usually the first part of a school budget which is cut during hard times. School leaders who wish to remain on the cutting edge will become treasure seekers, reaching out to build an impressive group of educational stockholders, people and organizations willing to invest in our nation's future by supporting innovative school practices. Given the nature of the global economy, supporting schools is becoming the patriotic thing to do. 

© 1993, Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved.