Almost all community-based projects engage in a consistent discussion about the need for resources. Often those discussions become focused on strategies to raise grant funds. Our disciplinary training, however, doesn’t often provide the tools or frameworks to work through such issues. In what follows, I hope to provide a process to structure conversations about resources and community-based projects.
Listening for Partnerships
- Values Driven Process
A central element of any successful community/university partnership are common values. Prior to seeking any grants, partners should discuss the values that should inform the process of seeking, holding, and distributing funds. A conversation beforehand will ensure a common ground is in place if funds are received. Otherwise, the introduction of funds could bring conflict and weaken the partnership.
- Alliance Building
Before seeking funds, projects should analyze if existing organizations already undertake the work for which a grant is sought. It is better to broaden your partner alliance than try to rebuild what already exists. Foundations are more likely to support a partnership among allies than to fund you to “reinvent the wheel.” Such partnerships can also soften or even eliminate the need to seek funding at all.
- Organizational Networks
Alliances not only strengthen a project, they also expand the types of grant funds available. If your only partner is a small non-profit, then you can only apply for grants that support such institutions. If you include a public school or health service organizations in your project, if appropriate, each will bring their own fundraising networks. In this sense, projects that exist within a broad alliance also exist within a stronger network of funding support.
Listening to Funders
- Solving Foundation Defined Problems
Foundations do not provide funds to solve our problems; they provide funds for us to solve their problems. When writing a grant application, then, you need to address the foundation’s primary issue, showing you understand the moral imperative of this work. This shows you want to be part of their mission and join their alliance. If you understand a different problem as being more important, then you should look for a different foundation.
- Write in Simple Language
Grant officers are deeply embedded within the complexity of their set of issues. They are not necessarily embedded in our particularized academic writing. When writing grant applications, you should not use academic discourse. Instead, write from the moral/ethical impulse which brought your project to this work. If you begin within that language, you are more likely to avoid terms like “counter-hegemonic publics” and convince the foundation you can actually converse with your community partners.
- Provide a Concrete Plan
This is often the most difficult part of the grant application. To be convincing, the proposal has to offer realistic steps toward completion. This often means very dry prose, such as “will hold four community meetings per month” or “10 Participants will be trained to conduct 200 door to door interviews.” The funder should almost be able to see how one step will logically follow to the next. It is the ability to see concretely see how the project moves from beginning to end that demonstrates the plan can actually be enacted.
- Produce Results
Be humble in claims about what will change as a result of this project. Assume that the grant officer has been reading applications for decades. She can sense what is feasible versus idealistic. So be specific: “The project will produce a new curriculum for a middle school, introducing extensive writing/revision practices, to be used by over 100 students.” A concrete result is worth more than claims about changing broad-based systemic injustices. Indeed, humility will actually enable you to get funds to undertake difficult social justice work.
- Ask for Less
Never ask for the total amount available for a grant. Imagine a room of grants officers attempting to dole out the allotted funds. Their goal is to fund several valuable projects rather than one expensive project. By coming under budget, you support this goal. You also show that the request is driven by the needs of the project, not the size of the possible grant.
Listening for Sustainability
- Don’t Over Raise Money
Universities often highlight large grants received by faculty. This can lead to faculty exclusively seeking large grants. When a project is built upon large grants, the project often vanishes when the money is gone. It is better to slowly build grant support, making sure what is built can withstand the loss of funds. Eventually you might need to seek large grants. Seeking large grants at the outset, though, builds your project on very shaky ground. (NOTE: Large grants often also take you away from the actual project and into a morass of paperwork.)
- Don’t Chase the Money
Finally, as projects grow, there will be a widening pool of grant possibilities. It is tempting to start applying for grants for which “you could qualify” but which are tangential to your project. This is known as “chasing the money” because the goal becomes securing grants, not the work of the project. When considering any grant, a project should first project its’ goals for the next three to five years, then discuss whether the potential funds support or distract from that trajectory.