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Getting the Grants: Boost Your Chances!

Grants help fill the funding gap at a time when dollars from government coffers—and even some private sources—have dwindled.

IN THE INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY arena, a number of tech companies offer grants that can help advance university research and instructional programs. That’s the good news. Now for the bad news: Competition abounds and only a handful of grant seekers obtain funding.

But grant writers can improve their chances. Tech foundation executives interviewed for this column described a number of steps institutions can take to make their application stand out from the masses. Consider the following tactics:

Do Your Homework

A tech vendor’s grant program usually has a sweet spot or two. It behooves the grant writer to discover those priorities and align the grant application accordingly. Sun Microsystems, for instance, seeks proposals that reflect the company’s investment priorities, notes Luis Sanchez, director of Business Solutions and Strategic Programs for Global Education and Research at Sun. “There has to be some alignment on technology interests,” he says. Sun’s Academic Excellence Grant Program, which offers hardware donations, emphasizes such fields as Web-based learning and high-performance computing. The grants are made on a quarterly basis.

IT FundingElsewhere, Intergraph’s Education Grant Program is built around the company’s GeoMedia geographic information system software. The program, which grants software licenses to awardees, requires applicants to submit a plan describing how Intergraph technology will be implemented and, in the case of classroom use, provide an outline of the course that will use the software.

“The grants are very focused,” explains Shanthi Lindsey, Intergraph’s program manager for Education. “We’re looking for a clear understanding of how the technology will be implemented in the classroom environment or in research projects.”

Keep Time and Focus in Mind

Applicants should also synchronize with a grant program’s time horizon. The NEC Foundation of America, which concentrates on assistive technology for people with disabilities, focuses on near-term developments. Sylvia Clark, the foundation’s executive director, says her organization backs technologies that will be ready to deploy in a year or two.

“We are not in the business of basic research,” Clark says, noting that those proposals involving research projects or doctoral programs receive the quickest turndown. Successful proposals, on the other hand, “tend to have some good pilot work behind them,” she adds.

At the other end of the timeline, Sun’s External Research Office co-funds university research projects. The office seeks technology that will have commercial implications in two to five years. Emil Sarpa, director of External Research Grants at Sun, points out that his office d'esn’t pursue technologies on the cusp of becoming products. Instead, the grant program looks for deliverables such as a joint paper presented at a conference, or a prototype.

Develop a Communications Plan

Organizations that award grants like to get progress reports from recipients. Lora Phillips, manager of Community Relations and Corporate Philanthropy at Symantec, says she thinks grant seekers should mention in their applications how they intend to keep the funding organization informed. Mechanisms range from a quarterly newsletter to an occasional e-mail update, she notes. The Symantec Foundation funds education initiatives that emphasize math, science, technology and engineering. To find out more, head to the Symantec Foundation.

Clark, at the NEC Foundation, cites ongoing communication as a formal requirement of that foundation’s grant program. Recipients are required to submit a status report to the foundation every six months until the project is complete.


Grant seekers should keep in mind that a research proposal focused on a single discipline may fail to get the same attention as an initiative linking contributors from various fields. A project in the medical area, for example, may call for the expertise of an MD, a computer scientist, and an engineer, Sanchez at Sun points out.

“Now, we are much more interested in looking at some of these integrated groups,” he explains. Applicants, he adds, “might have a better chance of getting a grant if they are working with someone else.” Sanchez says he sees partnering among institutions as a growing grants trend.

Partnering can also help an institution broaden its project’s impact. Clark points to the example of the University of Minnesota, which is working on an online project to create an accessible Web portal for self-advocacy groups across the country. The school partners with People First Minnesota, a local self-advocacy organization, to test site design and feature preferences.

Cut to the Chase

Put simply, grant providers prefer applications and proposals that get to the point. Symantec’s Phillips says some institutions preface their applications with a discussion of who they are, what they are doing, and why their work is important. While those details are useful, applicants should clearly state what they are hoping to obtain in the very first paragraph. In fact, if Phillips had to choose the one thing that would help a grant application, “Be very succinct and very clear about what is actually being asked of us,” she asserts. You don’t ask [clearly]; you don’t get.

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