October 5, 2016

How To Win Federal Education Grants: Tips from Bellwether’s Lina Bankert and Steph Wilson Itelman

By Bellwether

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Last week, the U.S. Department of Education announced it will award a $27 million Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF) grant to our client, Harmony Public Schools, over the next five years. Bellwether is honored to have partnered with Harmony on developing their human capital strategy and vision for the grant, and we’re thrilled to see such a substantial investment in their vital work for kids.
We’re also proud to have advised the Tennessee and Louisiana Departments of Education on their successful applications for Charter School Program and TIF grants, respectively.
Lina Bankert and Steph Wilson Itelman led this work for Bellwether, and we spoke to them about developing federal education grant proposals; what differentiates a successful application; and how you can win highly competitive, much-needed funding for your organization.
Tell us about your experience doing federal grant writing work. What organizations has Bellwether partnered with?
Bellwether has been delighted to support many outstanding organizations in their successful bids for federal grants. These include:

  • Charter Schools Program (RePublic Schools, 2015; IDEA Public Schools, 2014)
  • Investing in Innovation (National Math and Science Initiative, 2015; IDEA Public Schools, 2010; New Schools for New Orleans, 2010)
  • School Leadership Program (New Schools for New Orleans/Relay Graduate School of Education, 2013)
  • Race to the Top – District (Harmony Public Schools, 2012; IDEA Public Schools, 2012)

Bellwether has an unparalleled track record of supporting clients in these highly competitive grants, and we do so in a variety of ways. We first and foremost act as a thought partner and “critical friend,” working to clarify and define the vision and theory of action for the grant (a critical success factor). We then collaborate to ensure that the narrative is clear, compelling, and reflective of the regulations. We often project manage the process and ensure that tight timelines are met, while facilitating conversations throughout to push the thinking. We often provide additional research support and data analysis to underscore the narrative and can lead the actual writing of the grant and budget development. 
What makes for a winning grant application?  What’s the advantage of working with a firm?
While many organizations have seen great success tackling grants without outside support, we know the process can be hugely time consuming for leaders who are already very busy with the “real work” of fulfilling their mission. It can also be very challenging for organizations to tell a crisp, data-driven story about their project that is still aligned to the federal regulations and meets the required format. The application prompts can feel repetitive, so it’s definitely an art to concisely and precisely answer the questions asked while sharing a clear narrative.
We get so excited with grant winners who are able to take the work they want to do and effectively convey that through the application, rather than trying to force a program into grant regulations. Organizations can be successful with the latter approach, but they may wind up with work that is not one hundred percent mission-aligned.
An additional challenge is that the competitions usually have very tight timelines for turnaround: six to eight weeks between the launch of the regulations and the due date for the applications. The applications themselves are often over forty pages long and follow a very specific formula. Most organizations simply don’t have the capacity to dedicate to this work. Bellwether is able to ensure that the time an organization invests in developing an application is well-spent.
What are the biggest misconceptions about this kind of grant writing work?
The biggest misconception we hear is that grant writing is not strategic. In fact, we see that grants help organizations get exceptionally clear about the vision of a major strategic initiative and all the critical operating details to ensure successful implementation. Writing a grant means clients have clarity on these things before the work even begins. When done thoughtfully, grant writing can also encourage broad stakeholder engagement that sustains over time, deepening buy-in for the strategy.  
For us as an outside partner, it’s a great opportunity to get “in the trenches” with our partners and work closely with them to create a joint product. It helps everyone increase levels of mutual respect for the work we all do in pursuit of better opportunities and outcomes for kids.
What’s your advice for organizations thinking about competing for federal grants?

  1. Keep the reviewer in mind. We know that reviewers are looking for specific evidence that is easy to find and understand.
  2. Be very thoughtful about developing the theory of action and key objectives for the plan. The entire plan builds on these elements.
  3. Ensure the plan clearly links to a track record of success and quality. We connect the history to the future, ensuring that the plan builds on and expands what has already worked.
  4. Use examples and case studies, which bring programs to life and make concepts concrete. This is an art as well: using too many anecdotes may look like you’re not systematic and data-driven. It’s a fine balance.
  5. Align the rollout timing, budget, and target outcomes. Tell a simple and clear story about how the initiatives yield the outcome goals promised.

Overall, make sure you have sufficient capacity to develop the grant submission. It is a lot of work but can be worth the investment if you put the time in!
To learn more about Bellwether’s Strategic Advising team and how we can partner with you on grant applications or other work, email our team at contactus@bellwether.org.

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