Applications Open for 3 Federal Grants: Tips From Bellwether

In the past few days, three major education-related federal grants have opened their application processes.

The Supporting Effective Educator Development (SEED) Grant Program, the Teacher and School Leader (TSL) Incentive Grants, and the Education Innovation and Research (EIR) Fund collectively offer approximately $266 million in funding to eligible education entities. (All three currently list a June 2020 application deadline.)

Teachers at Skyline High School meet with community partners to plan work-based learning opportunities for students.

Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

These programs closely align with Bellwether’s mission of supporting underserved students: 

  • SEED: “Increase the number of highly effective educators by supporting […] practices that prepare, develop, or enhance the skills of educators”
  • TSL: “Develop, implement, improve, or expand comprehensive Performance-Based Compensation Systems or Human Capital Management Systems for teachers, principals, and other school leaders […] especially [those] who […] close the achievement gap between high- and low-performing students”
  • EIR: “Create, develop, implement, replicate, or take to scale entrepreneurial, evidence-based, field-initiated innovations to improve student achievement and attainment for high-need students; and rigorously evaluate such innovations”

While these grants require complex applications and can be highly competitive, Bellwether is here to help. Since 2010, we have successfully partnered with many organizations in their successful bids for federal grants. These include the following organizations, some of which have won several times with our support: Harmony Public Schools, IDEA Public Schools, Louisiana Department of Education, National Math and Science Initiative, New Schools for New Orleans, RePublic Schools, Rhode Island Department of Education, and Tennessee Department of Education.

Back in 2016, I shared a series of tips on writing a successful federal education grant application, so we’re re-upping that conversation today.

But first, a few 2020 additions to our 2016 thoughts:

First, it is worth naming that we are navigating through highly uncertain times precipitated by the COVID-19 crisis. Leaders across the sector are urgently attending to foundational needs and may see a grant application as yet another item on top of an already packed to-do list. We empathize — and also believe that now is an opportune moment for organizations to think ahead and consider how to evolve to address changing needs, either by accelerating existing work or by pursuing a bold new innovation.

Second, don’t feel like you have to go it alone. Many strong grant proposals are developed in partnership. We encourage organizations to have conversations early on with potential partners who can bring particular expertise or serve as a “test lab” for an initiative. (My colleague Allison Crean Davis will write a companion post tomorrow about the evaluation capabilities needed for a winning grant — and how we can support on that front.)

Finally, even if your application does not rise to the top, consider yourself a winner. Grant development can help you get clarity on where you’re headed and highlight gaps that you need to close before taking on a big new initiative. Going through the process of identifying strengths and opportunities can be just as valuable as actually acing the competition.

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@bellwethereducation.org. We have the pattern recognition, industry knowledge, and strategic decision-making capabilities to help you seize the opportunity and tell your story well.