Major grants for charter schools: 8 common mistakes to avoid (and what to do instead)
Updated: Mar 7
What if you were the one to make a $10 million mistake? Major Grants can be worth millions and can determine the future success, expansion, and financial health of your charter school. Federal grants are extremely competitive. For each grant application that is successful, many more are denied. Keep reading to learn more about common mistakes that lead to these denials.
As a charter school leader, you already have three or four job descriptions to fill. CEO? Principal? Facilities Manager? Counselor? What else is already on your plate? When you add an attempt to write a proposal for a major grant, sometimes your plate overflows. I have seen leaders (including myself!) make many of the mistakes below. Plan now to avoid these mistakes that could cost you the win in a major grants competition.
Trying to do it alone– Sometimes it seems like it is easier to do it yourself than to try to explain your ideas to others. This is not a solo job. Build a grants committee with people you can count on to help you write this grant.
Trying to do it while still doing your full-time job– Some experts have estimated that it takes an average of 80 hours to write a major grant proposal. Where are you going to find the time? You need to plan to delegate some of your duties to increase your time available for this project. This may mean that you assign routine duties to others on staff or that you hire consultants or extra part-time help.
Recruiting people for grants committee who are not 100% in– When you invite people to join your committee, look for specific skills AND a commitment to the project. Both are equally important. You need people who can provide certain types of expertise, but passion for the goals of your project can help your team overcome many roadblocks and setbacks.
Not allowing enough time for preparing proposal– as stated above, it is estimated to take an average of 80 hours to write a major grant. That is just “writing”. It does not include the many hours of meetings, research, and planning that are required to develop a major project proposal. Take note of the submission deadline, make a realistic estimate of how many hours you can dedicate per week and how many team members are available to help, and back up your timeline from there. My recommendation? Whatever time you think it will take to plan and write this grant – double it. That is a safe estimate. When you don’t allow enough time to fully develop your proposal, it shows. The grant reviewers will see the missing pieces and may be left with questions that you can’t answer.
Not having a unifying vision– How will your idea create a positive impact on your community and produce improved student academic achievement? Every goal, every data point, every resume should be designed to illustrate your vision for this project. This is where the lack of time allowed to fully develop a project can be seen. You need time after most of the proposal has been put together to go through the details with fresh eyes and tie it all together.
Pursuing a project that is beyond your school’s capacity to manage– Can your team handle the project? Do you have the leadership, the experience, and the resources to do what you are promising? Think seriously about what is needed and document your plans for expanding your team to handle the additional responsibilities.
Failing to consider stakeholder needs and include stakeholder voice – Sometimes a small group of leaders is eager to take the next step to expand or replicate, but the community is not with them. Sometimes the community is pushing for expansion but the school leadership is not sure. Be open and transparent about your plans, and seek stakeholder input at every step in the process. This input will inform your plans and enable the community to voice their support. Community support is a crucial element that is considered by the review team.
Failing to be realistic about roadblocks– is land or building inventory in short supply? Are schools in your area struggling to meet enrollment goals? Is the target market big enough to support your goals? Do you have support from the community, your authorizer, and your staff for your plans? Be realistic and document your plans to address these roadblocks. Consider any possible issues and show how you plan to manage them.
How do you eat an elephant?
As the joke goes, “one bite at a time.” A federal grant application is a major commitment. You may feel overwhelmed at times. Here are some great tips to keep you going.
Delegate and manage accountability
Part of the benefit of working as a team is that you can delegate certain tasks to individuals. But as the school leader, you need to manage your team and hold them accountable. If you agree to meet on a certain date and have certain tasks completed, expect your team to come prepared (and be sure you have done your part.)
Focus on WHY
Above all, your motivation to persevere comes from a deep sense of purpose. Remind yourself and your team WHY you are embarking on this project. The more meaningful and personal you can make your WHY, the stronger its impact. Post a photo or quote on the wall to remind you. Keep the vision in front of you daily. You will be confronted with roadblocks and nay-sayers. Your WHY needs to be stronger than their NO.
Know your team
You picked your team members for a reason. Capitalize on their skills and talents. If you have a numbers person, be sure that person has been assigned to work on the budget, not on the community support team. If you have an outgoing speaker, don’t use that person as an editor; put them out in front of the community to garner support. Success is found in the perfect storm of talent + interest + experience for each task.
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It is important that you and your team feel like you are making progress. Milestones can help mark the passage of time and give you something to feel good about.
You can use the grant rubric as a starting point. Add in all the major tasks that need to be accomplished, and any important sub-tasks. Decide who is responsible for which activities. Put these on your calendar and ensure that you stay on track with each milestone to meet your goals.
Celebrate the milestones
Be excited about each goal accomplished, each item “checked off” the list. Develop rituals that allow your team to see their progress, such as crossing off an item on the shared Google doc or on the white board in your office, with fanfare and a sense of shared pride.
Your leadership in this area allows your team to feel a sense of accomplishment and momentum, which can carry you forward during those long meetings and late night editing sessions.
Even a professional grant-writer is likely to win only 50% to 60% of the grants they attempt. What are the most common reasons for denials?
They don't have enough funds to accept every request.
The request falls outside of the funder's giving interests.
The applicant didn't follow application guidelines.
Major grants can be an important source of funding for charter schools. With careful planning, thoughtful writing, and a great vision for your school program, you can improve your odds of approval.
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