Gaining edtech grants

Where school districts secure funding to support cutting-edge technology initiatives
By: | November 26, 2018

Districts increasingly look outside of existing budgets to supply IT teams with the apps, technology and professional development today’s K12 environment demands.

Leaders who are solving this funding puzzle turn frequently to regional and national grant opportunities.

“On the one hand, it’s the best of times, and on the other, it’s the worst of times” says John Harrington, CEO of Funds for Learning, an E-rate compliance services firm.

“The adoption rate for digital curriculum and digital devices is skyrocketing, but schools are scrambling to keep up.”

Education consultant Rita Oates says finding the right grant programs and writing a winning application can be daunting.

SIDEBAR: Click for funding

She often steers educators toward lesser-known sources of funding and recommends that they “go local first.”

Some grant sources—such as the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the National Science Foundation—can present challenges.

“Those are great for people who are well experienced in writing grants, or who hire grant writers, or who have the time and the energy to develop relationships with those very large funders” she says.

“But that’s a challenge for an educator—a classroom teacher, an assistant principal or someone in the district office.”

Competitive edge

Local community partners and organizations represent low-hanging fruit when it comes to edtech funding.

Even though the grants are generally smaller—often $1,000 or less—there’s also less competition, says Oates, who will present on funding at FETC, the Future of Education Technology Conference, in Orlando next month.

Consider these edtech funding sources and supports.

U.S. community foundations. These nonprofit organizations seek to meet the needs of local communities.

The Iowa Community Foundation, for instance, grants 75 percent of its funds—which come from a state gaming tax—to charitable projects within its counties. It places the remaining 25 percent in a permanent endowment fund.

The Council on Foundations website includes a tool to locate accredited community foundations.

“The idea is that local money is going to local choices” says Oates, who is the former education technology director for Miami-Dade County Public Schools.

“Going local is always going to give you a faster turnaround for smaller amounts of money and an ongoing relationship, which means you can keep coming back to the same funder.”

Crowdfunding. Sources such as DonorsChoose, Adopt-A-Classroom, GoFundMe Education, Pledge Cents and similar services connect needy schools with angel investors. When using these sites, it’s key to stand out from other prospective grantees.

Oates also says to be assertive when asking for support. “I would never post anything on any of these crowdfunding sites without having two or three donations lined up, even if they’re $5 each” she adds. “If no one is giving money, why would someone else want to back it?”

Local service clubs. “There are local organizations that want to be do-gooders within the community” says Oates.

Rotary International, Kiwanis International, Sertoma Inc., Lions Clubs International and Junior Chamber International (Jaycees) consider children and education important parts of their missions, she says.

Once, while attending a Rotary meeting in a “fairly affluent” community, Oates saw $4,000 raised in a single night when someone solicited support for an afterschool facility that was damaged by a fire.

Consider supplying photos to show “what needs to be changed” she says.

Sponsored websites. Sites such as getedfunding.com are sponsored by companies, but offer free access to a curated collection of grants and awards available to public schools.

‘Your best vision of the future’

Grant applications shouldn’t tout a list of desired devices or tools, but instead should focus on a vision—such as getting students more engaged in school, or setting higher aspirations for teachers and learners, Oates says.

And grant applications should address the impact that the technology will have on student learning and other outcomes.

Remember that investors “want to buy into a solution to a problem” she says. “What you’re writing is your best vision of what the future could be, if only there is funding to do these things.”

Oates also advises grant writers to:

• include research that guides and supports the ideas

• find an appropriate partner to draft sections of the application

• offer to help cover project costs such as printing or office supplies

Moreover, educators should show that district personnel have the expertise that matches the edtech vision by including a 100-word biography or résumé. This could sway funders, adds Oates.

Here are four more tips for winning applications.

Ground it in research. Even if your edtech initiative is a novel idea, include some research to show its worth.

This will give the application an edge and reinforces “the ultimate goal, which is to back something that’s going to be successful and make a difference” Oates says.

Focus. District leaders should pick one potential funding stream to channel time and energy. “If you fritter away your time on multiple sites, you’re not going to get much from any one of them” Oates adds.

“You need to focus on one. There’s not one that’s best. There’s one that’s best for you and your project.”

Join a supportive community. Educators can ask questions of experienced grant writers and grant recipients in an online education-funding community, such as EdWeb.net.

“It’s a way of getting a quick answer to a question” Oates says. “It’s also a way to get some early alerts about things that are coming up that might be of interest.”

Think about long-term sustainability. Throughout the initial funding stream, collect results and evaluations, and share the information at conferences, in publications and in presentations with stakeholders.

Use outcomes as proof of concept when returning to the original funder and requesting additional funds to expand. Use the same concept and message, and “recycle the idea” for new grant competitions.

“District-level people need to be thinking of sustainability and relationships that can lead to good outcomes” Oates says. “People want to help schools. They just don’t know how.”

Forecasting the E-rate route

As schools and libraries prepare to secure fiscal year 2019 E-rate discounts, the Federal Communications Commission is crafting a proposal that dictates the direction of the program in FY2020, when E-rate modernization reforms expire.

Funds for Learning surveyed applicants and found that about 65 percent of schools want to upgrade Wi-Fi networks in the next three years. Roughly 98 percent of schools turn to the E-rate program for support.

“Most schools cannot afford to do it without the E-rate program” says Harrington, of Funds for Learning. “Even then, it’s a stretch to get the laptops and all the other associated bits and pieces.”

In 2014, the E-rate Modernization Order ushered in changes for Category 2, which provides discounts for internal connections on a five-year cycle. The agency issued a public notice in October 2017 seeking comments on the C2 budget system.

Harrington anticipates the FCC will soon take action by releasing proposed rules and initiating the formal rule-making process.

“Every indication sug