There is a mystique when it comes to grants: Even school district veterans can struggle with where to find funding, how to craft a proposal and who to put in charge of efforts.

It’s also easy to get bogged down with calls for proposals. Sometimes, that can distract school districts from creating their own opportunities.

“It is very important to be a member of your community,” said Laura Geltch, grants, communication and sponsorship coordinator for the Hamilton Township School District. “Serve on every committee you can, be part of the local businesses, YMCAs, food pantries, municipalities, etc.”

Successful schools build mutually beneficial relationships with others dedicated to supporting students, she said. “Make sure you are putting yourself out as a community resource,” she said. “You don’t always want to be the one asking. You want to be the one helping others and recognizing community partners — supporting them and celebrating them.”

Forge connections with food pantries, homeless shelters and other community-minded groups, Geltch said. “They are also going to be looking for grants, and they can help you,” she said. “Make those connections — you are all looking for the same resources and can help one another.”

Those relationships can pay dividends when you apply for a grant, Geltch pointed out. “I want to align with experts and partner with them — and make mention of that in our grant if it will help,” she said. That may mean saying you plan to team up with an accredited counselor to work with staff.

“I use those examples to build out the grant,” she said. “You have to have those alliances and resources. That becomes part of the data and the facts of what you’d use the grant money for and what is the goal.”

Lisa Powell, a proposal specialist at Rowan University who previously owned a grant-writing consulting business and was the director of special projects for the Clayton Public School District and special projects coordinator at Camden County Technical Schools, agrees that community connections can be key.

“Foundations can definitely be good for school districts because they provide small pockets of money for some really good projects,” Powell said. “Look for a foundation that has ties to whatever it is you are looking to do.”

Beyond staying involved in the community, there are other ways to capitalize on opportunities.

If you can, hire someone to focus on grants —or make sure the person you have in the role is the right fit. “I think without a doubt, school districts should try to hire someone who is dedicated to this line of work, because if they do, the money that they pay for that person, they will receive ten-fold in funding,” Powell said.

Even if it takes time for a new hire to get up to speed, there is noncompetitive funding that all districts are eligible for, and a grant writer can focus on that. “You are freeing up a vice principal and giving them more time to do what they really need to do instead of overseeing entitlement funding (which is funding provided to school districts based on need. Such funding is usually provided by the federal government and funneled down to states, such as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act),” Powell said. “And once your hire has a better feel for the district, there are so many opportunities — big and small,” she said. “But you need someone who is very detail oriented — someone who asks a lot of questions.”

Track needs. When Geltch started working for the Hamilton Township School District in 2018, her extensive experience as a fundraiser and marketer were an invaluable resource when tackling the coordination of grants. She met with every principal in her school district to find out what its 12,000 students and 1,800 staff members needed.

That knowledge paid dividends when she connected with Shine and Inspire, a nonprofit that helps Mercer County residents. When she spoke with its executive director, she shared that some students were not coming to school because they didn’t have deodorant, laundry detergent and other such items. “It was affecting them academically because they could not come to school,” Geltch said.

Shine and Inspire now works with schools throughout Mercer County to offer a closet pantry program on school sites in partnership with Amazon. When students have a basic need that is not being met, they can get help at one of the pantries spread throughout the district, Geltch said.

Knowing what you need is great advice, Powell agreed.

“When I worked in school districts, I was always involved in administrative meetings at different levels, and what it allowed me to do was listen to what the needs were,” she said. She’d keep track of needs on a “hit sheet,” which she’d compare against grant opportunities.

“When I would do a search for grants, if I could creatively link those needs to what a sponsor was giving, I would put that in the project,” Powell said.

Don’t focus too much on what you want. While it’s important to be in tune with needs, don’t let products dominate your proposal, said Patrick Riedy, a grants development consultant with Grants Office, which has a partnership with the NJSBA (see sidebar at right).

“All too often, what happens is when you let the product lead the way instead of the project, you are starting off somewhat on the wrong foot because you might be fixated on a couple products instead of developing a comprehensive project that the grant maker wants to see,” he said. “Grant makers are concerned about the social benefits — they are interested in student achievement and the outcome benefits for a project — not necessarily the tools that will be needed to achieve that student outcome. Let the project needs and objectives determine the products you might need.”

Look local. Sometimes, the best approach is to look in your backyard, Geltch said. Many school districts have a foundation to support students, and you can start there.

For instance, the Hamilton Educational Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving public education in Hamilton Township, was instrumental in helping the district hold its first outside graduation at the Trenton Thunder Ballpark. The foundation also has provided the district with other resources to navigate the pandemic, Geltch said.

Moreover, there are many corporations that want to give back, with Amazon, Prior & Nami Business Systems and Capstone Anchor Solar regularly donating to the Hamilton Township School District, she said.

Team up with other school districts or institutions. Two or more districts can team up on a proposal, Powell said. “Find ways to include other districts, which can really make for a great proposal,” she said. This can come into play when a poor district with more access to funding teams up with a more affluent district, she said.

Moreover, don’t limit yourself to teaming up only with other elementary and secondary schools. “I would say reach out to the community college or your closest university,” Powell said. There are distinct streams of funding for different types of institutions — and it’s not uncommon for a university like Rowan to use grant money to help area high school students, she noted.

“Even if you don’t find funding at the elementary or high school level, that doesn’t mean you can’t find funding,” she said.

As just one example, Powell cited Rowan’s R.O.P.E.S. program, which is a two-year program for rising high school juniors who can enroll in dual credit coursework in select fields of study at Rowan. The program seeks to promote opportunities for student success and enhanced workforce readiness in career fields such as computer science, engineering, music business, social services and teacher education.

Read the fine print. Some grants may require you to match funds — or that you spend money by a certain date. Before you apply for a grant, make sure you can abide by its requirements, Geltch said.

Investigate or bolster your use of Donors Choose. Donors Choose, which began in 2000, is an online platform open to every public school in the United States that allows classroom teachers to submit project requests. It had recently funded about 2.1 million projects, drawing donations from almost 5.1 million supporters. The portal is a public charity, so donations are tax deductible. To ensure integrity, the organization vets all requests, purchases items and ships materials directly to verified teachers.

Hamilton teachers are amazed at how they’ve been able to secure funding through the platform, Geltch said, noting they have the most success when seeking less than $2,000. “They can put that request together in an hour or two and then it can be reviewed and approved,” she said. “Within a week or two, the campaign can be totally funded and the items on their way.”

Recent requests from Hamilton teachers on Donors Choose included one from Barbara Iannatto, who teaches at Albert E. Grice Middle School. She wanted to raise money for a classroom aquarium. In her request, she wrote, “I am requesting a complete aquarium set up with supplies so my students can learn responsibility and watch the growth in a marine environment. These materials will aid my students in setting up a working, living marine biome. This aquarium will also teach the students responsibility as they will be in charge of the day-to-day tasks of keeping the tank running and thriving.”

Mark V. Pienciak, who teaches at Hamilton High School-West, was raising money for an educational and community garden project. In his request, he wrote, “Many of the students at our school do not have access to nutrient-dense foods or know how to grow nutrient-dense foods. … By growing and eating more dark leafy greens, we will be able to get students more vitamins and minerals that they may be lacking in their everyday diet. These nutrient-dense foods will help our students feel better and perform better academically. Gardening also will give our students an opportunity to improve their mental health through focus, concentration and problem solving.”

Ask to see winning proposals. It doesn’t hurt to ask whoever is awarding a grant to see examples of past winning proposals. Usually, they will accommodate you, Powell said.

Moreover, you can always reach out to other area school districts to ask if they’d be willing to share winning proposals, she said.

Mimic the language in the grant opportunity. If you’ve ever hunted for a job, you know to lace your resume with keywords highlighted in the job posting. Take a similar strategy when applying for a grant, Powell said.

“You really want to spit back the same language that the sponsor puts in their proposal,” she said. “They want to see whatever it is you are trying to do aligns with what they are giving funding for … this is where you need a creative writer.”

Sweat the small stuff. Adhere to grant deadlines — and try to beat the deadline, Geltch said. Particularly with more competitive opportunities funded by the state, you often are submitting materials via a portal. As the deadline approaches, you may find everyone is submitting materials at the same time … and the site may crash. “It happened to us one time, and we were on a deadline,” she said.

One of the most common mistakes in applying for a grant is failing to get everything you need along with necessary approvals to submit various materials, Geltch said.

Find silver linings. The pandemic has unlocked an incredible amount of support via the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund — and it has mobilized local and national organizations.

In Hamilton Township’s case, numerous organizations, including the Princeton Area Community Foundation, have stepped up, Geltch said. “They have come through with about $60,000 in the past year to help us with programs addressing the social and emotional needs of students so they can get the resources they need,” she said.

Other significant community supporters of the Hamilton Township School District include Shop Hamilton, The Hamilton Area YMCA, CYO Yardville and the Bromley Neighborhood Civic Center, Geltch said.

Recognize that traditional grant funding differs from emergency grant funding, which has been prevalent during the COVID-19 pandemic. “That is one thing that will be important as we climb our way out of this pandemic,” Riedy said. “You must keep in mind that traditional grant opportunities involve a lot more planning on the front end of the process … that is going to be really important. COVID funding will be available to districts for the next few years, but down the road, you need to know that traditional grant opportunities are different than stimulus grants and involve a lot more planning.”

Execute! If you do all the above, you’ll likely enjoy some success. When you do, it’s time to make it pay off.

“The role of the grant writer is not to manage the project but continue to seek funding,” Powell said. “You need to be willing to have other people take pieces of the project and make sure you are meeting your objectives, that you are spending the funding prudently the way that it was approved in the budget. The worst thing you could do is spend money from the sponsor inappropriately.”

Of course, if you can’t find the information you need above, there is always Google!

Thomas Parmalee is NJSBA’s managing editor.