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Recently I have had conversations with managers of NSF and NASA funded education projects. All expressed concern with a decrease in federal funding to stimulate STEM education. In a challenging economic climate, what do you need to know to successfully secure funding to support and grow your STEM effort? I spoke with successful grant writers to answer this question.
Sue Doubler, Co-director of the Center for Science Teaching and Learning at TERC has successfully proposed and implemented national level STEM education efforts for over 20 years. Kim Jacques, a professional grant writer located in Denver, CO works with a range of clients including those seeking funding for STEM programming. Paul Secor, of Secor Strategies, monitors trends and annually publishes a guide to STEM education funding. Each of these individuals shared his/her unique take on how to secure funding for STEM education. Many of their comments overlapped, yet each provided new insights to my understanding how to successfully fund STEM education. Whether you seek a small grant to expand a growing organization or are a veteran project manager with a multi-year effort in mind, success follows similar guidelines.
Education and Training obligations were lower in fiscal year 2011 than they were in fiscal year 2003, while over 100% of the National Science Foundation's total budget growth during the observed period went to Research and Development.
-Congressional Research Service April 9, 2012
Look in the mirror
Paul Secor recommends that individuals and organizations do a "reality check" before they seek funding. Secor regularly encounters clients whose passion exceeds their abilities. He coaches clients to recognize their true capabilities, aligning expectations with realistic outcomes. He explains that many organizations, especially those new to the process, over estimate their capacity and impact, leading them to promise more than they can deliver. Proposal reviewers easily identify teams that over-reach their abilities - due to lack of experience and/or lack of demonstrated success - and rarely recommend project funding. Before responding to a request for proposal (RfP) or soliciting foundation support, objectively assess your capabilities.
Articulate Passion and Vision
Doubler, Jacques, and Secor concur that organizations must have and articulate passion and vision. Doubler emphasized that the individual with the vision must take a lead role in writing the proposal. Having written and reviewed multiple proposals annually, Doubler feels that successful funding relies on simply and clearly articulating the vision of the project. Doubler notes that while co-authors may contribute, the project lead must play a significant role in defining and expressing the essentials of any effort. In a competitive environment, often the subtle differences between rival proposals leave lasting impressions on reviewers.
Demonstrate Measurable Outcomes
Realistic expectations, passion, and vision are not enough. Funders want to see concrete results from their investments. In this, existing programs have a slight advantage over new efforts as they have access to their own, previously collected data. Regardless, your grant application must demonstrate that you have or that you will gather a range of data to demonstrate the impact of your work. Your application should describe both the process data you will collect related to your grant-funded activities (such as hours of time on task for students, number of parent contacts, etc.) and the outcome data you will collect related to changes expected as a result of your project (for example, improved academic performance, increased teacher engagement and so on).
Successful proposals explain how progress toward the objectives will be measured. Include opportunities for formative assessment - immediate feedback that informs and allows you to improve your work during the funding period. Plan summative assessment to answer questions such as, "What worked?" and "What do we need to do better next time?" Small projects generally perform in-house evaluation whereas large projects may require budgeting for an outside evaluator. Know which is appropriate for your effort and budget time and resources for evaluation.
Stand on the Shoulders of Giants
Funds go to those who demonstrate that they will advance a body of work. To receive funding you must show your expertise, your knowledge of the research and best practices in your field, and how you will build-on and contribute to that field. Communicate your expertise in the field. Provide examples of current and past successes. For example, Doubler noted that next generation science educations are under development. As a STEM educator seeking funds, you should know and be prepared to respond to questions about how your work will incorporate or address the next generation science education standards.
Explain how your proposed work will incorporate current research and best practices. Reference and acknowledge the work of peers. Do this without diverging from your main goal - demonstrating why your work should be funded. Explain how funding your work will advance and contribute to a community of practitioners or researchers as well as the community that you serve. Clearly articulate how you intend collect and analyze data to demonstrate your impact and how and with whom you will share your results.
Understand Your Funder
Paul Secor and Kim Jacques both discussed the importance of understanding the funder. Secor warns applicants to avoid two mistakes: a) not recognizing the needs of the funder, and b) inflexibility. The two mistakes are intertwined. Funders have agendas and goals for the impact of their funding just as applicants have expectations. According to Secor, some degree of "mission creep" or flexibility may be necessary to meet your funders' needs. Kim distinguished between responding to a request for proposals (RfP) and seeking funds from a foundation. On the one hand, she said RfPs provide very exacting specifications that must be addressed in the proposal. In contrast, foundation grants often have much broader funding guidelines. In the case of an RfP, Jacques coaches clients avoid forcing a square peg in a round hole. If you are not a match, don't apply. With respect to broader foundation opportunities, Jacques encourages diligently researching the philosophy, mission, and politics of the funder. She notes that foundations want to partner with like-minded organizations to avoid negative public relations.
Spread the Wealth and the Risk
Secor and Jacques work with small organizations to secure smaller injections of funding from local foundations. Doubler's organization, TERC, generally seeks funding at the national level through organizations such as the National Science Foundation or NASA. Regardless, everyone recognizes the importance of partnerships. Partnerships allow organizations to combine resources and/or expertise to achieve similar goals. For example, universities often pair with school districts to access group of teachers and students when piloting new instructional strategies or testing a new curriculum. After-school programs often lack space. Seeking an industry partner to host a program allows the business to demonstrate a commitment to community service.
Moreover, partnerships spread the wealth and the risk. From the perspective of the funder, an organization that receives several small grants from multiple donors shows broad community support. As a seeker of funds, access to diverse sources creates redundancy should one of your donors withdraw funding.
Engage in the Daily Grind
Seekers of funds need to develop a daily or weekly habit of searching for resources. On the national level, most funding occurs on annual cycles with set deadlines for draft and final proposals. At the local level or for foundations, proposals may be excepted as long as funds exist and funds may become available at different times annually for each foundation. Secor recommends that someone in the organization screen grant opportunities at least once a week. He points out that some funding windows open and close quickly, within a 4-8 week period, leaving little time to prepare a proposal for the administrator checking resources only monthly. Jacques noted some applications are rejected for lack of funds not for lack of quality. She warns clients not to be caught at the back of the line when funding is available.
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