IT Funding | Feature

How to Write a Better IT Grant in 8 Steps

Facing increased budget pressure? It's time to fine-tune your tech grant proposal writing skills.

In 2011, Coconino Community College in Flagstaff, AZ, wanted to extend higher education access opportunities to more remote locations in the county. But to do so would require replacing outdated equipment with high-definition videoconferencing. After several consecutive years of state budget cuts, Chief Technology Officer Joe Traino knew he couldn't afford that.

"We applied to the US Department of Agriculture for a $300,000 Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grant," he said. The community college's videoconferencing goal fit nicely with the USDA program's mission to provide opportunities to people who otherwise would not be able to access important technological or educational tools. The grant funding CCC won will allow rural students to complete Arizona General Education Curriculum prerequisites in both the arts and lab sciences without having to relocate.

Traino is not alone in seeking grant funding for IT projects. In the face of increasing budget pressure, campus IT leaders who have never written a grant proposal are starting to learn something about the process. And there is a sharp learning curve.

At the Campus Technology 2012 conference this summer in Boston, executives from schools ranging from large research universities to small community colleges fine-tuned ideas on how to distinguish their tech initiatives in grant proposals.

Meg Cantwell, senior consultant for special initiatives in the Grants Resource Center of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, led about 25 participants through the process of formulating a grant proposal, including the pitfalls to avoid. She stressed that the best opportunities involve demonstrating an innovative approach or tying the IT project to economic development, workforce development, community engagement, or small-business partnerships. "Reviewers like something tested in a number of settings that is being applied in a new way," she said.

Cantwell also recommends taking the long view. "You're not likely to receive a huge grant the first time out. Pair yourself with someone else or begin building a track record," she suggests. Start with smaller internal grants or foundation grants, or build connections with other schools that do have experience winning grant funding. "Only through practical experience can you build your own style."

Step 1: Understand Campus Politics
Cantwell, who has been working at the AASCU's Grants Resource Center since June 2000, said IT executives considering grant work must begin by understanding the politics and project management aspects of proposal development on their own campuses. Make contact with the office of development or advancement and the office of research and sponsored programs, she advised. "Working together with these groups early on allows you look at an array of federal and private grant opportunities," she said. "If you wait until later in the process to engage them, you may not get as much support as you need."

Step 2: Form a Hypothesis
"A hypothesis is a small cause and effect," Cantwell said. You have to phrase your proposal as a research question, and you must describe an intervention. "You can't write to a software company that makes grants and just say we need some software. You have to say what the intervention is going to achieve. You are going to test your hypothesis and say whether it has met your goals. You have to explain the quantitative and qualitative ways you will measure the impact."

Step 3: Identify Grant Sources
Once you have a hypothesis nailed down, start identifying potential grant-making organizations, from both government and foundation sources. If your institution has an office of research and sponsored programs, it can help you look through free databases such as Grants.gov or fee-based programs the office may subscribe to. That office will also know of regional funding opportunities, said Cantwell, and has an understanding of regional politics and community development needs. "As educators, you impact the overall economy," she noted. Getting support from the National Governors Association and local administrations can help set your proposal ahead of the competition.

According to Cantwell, it is a misconception that constrained federal budgets means fewer opportunities for funding. "Agencies are under pressure to expand their applicant pools and their support of underrepresented groups," she said. At the federal level, agencies that had stronger grant funding resources in 2012 included the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the US Departments of Defense, Energy, and Transportation. Those that have seen grant budgets reduced include Agriculture, NASA, Homeland Security, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"Energy, healthcare, and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education continue as priorities," she said. "Innovation is the key catch phrase."

Step 4: Nail the Statement of Need
Although your proposal will be many pages long, grant-making organizations are likely to first focus in on your statement of need, goals, and objectives, and the project team in place. "The statement of need is critically important," said Cantwell. "If a university has a huge infrastructure, you will have to clearly explain why you need additional funding." On the other hand, if you have very little infrastructure and no endowment, you have to explain how you will make the project a success.

Funders will also study the qualifications of the project director, and you will need to account for the possibility that someone working on the project might drop out, Cantwell said.

Step 5: Manage Your Goals
Your proposal should speak to goal attainment within the timeline described. You should probably have a maximum of three goals, she said. "If you have 12, your proposal is too diffuse," Cantwell said. Objectives are traditionally the steps to attain goals. You need an assessment plan and a budget line attached to each. Your evaluation process collects and interprets data to answer evaluation questions. "Reviewers do want to see more quantitative data" rather than just survey or anecdotal data, she said.

Step 6: Keep it Straightforward
Cantwell says the style of writing is important. You might consider hiring a grant writer to help, "but you need to have your fingerprint on the proposal--on how it is going to feel on your campus," she said. Avoid buzzwords such as "paradigm-shifting," and write in the most straightforward way possible, she recommended. You will irritate reviewers with spelling errors, too many acronyms, and the overuse of technology terms, or with overly complex sentences or passive voice.

In addition, you diminish your credibility if you fail to address criteria, assessment, and grant administration or include a lot of extraneous information, she stressed.

Step 7: Save the Abstract for Last
An abstract is perhaps only a three- to five-sentence explanation of the relationship being proposed, including information about the research target. "It's easy to think that this abstract is the first thing to write," she said, "but actually that is the wrong approach." Put together the proposal first, she suggested, and then cherry-pick the most compelling information into the abstract.

Step 8: Take Your Time and Do it Right
Cantwell also warned IT leaders to take as long as they need to do a good job. Generally, unless you have a job as a grant writer, you will not be paid extra for what you are taking on. "This can take up your life just like a dissertation can," she said, adding that it helps to pair up with someone who also can make the commitment. "It's easy to drop or miss a deadline or turn out a proposal that is not well done," she said. "If you turn out a weak proposal, funded or not, the first impression of you is a negative one, and you have harmed yourself."

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