Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Secrets to Winning Lots of Money

For Grant Writers. Almost fooled you there. Anyway, one of the tricks I've always employed (and it's been pretty successful so far) has been to use a sob story in my "Need" section. Now, sometimes this entails helping a school district develop a survey to assess the state of their kids. A few years ago we needed to establish need for a big money Phy Ed grant (win big money and valuable prizes with the "PEP" grant!), so one of our clients surveyed their 6th and 7th graders with the following two questions: 1) What do you do on the weekends or after school? and, 2) What do your friends and classmates do after school and on the weekends? The goal, I suppose, was to make the kids look lazy, fat, and depressed (or why would they need a bunch of new Stairmasters and climbing walls?) The answers were revealing, and included such gems as:
  • bick riding and playing viteo games
  • nothing, P-town sucks
  • I don’t know what other people do I don’t live with them
  • walking to the gas station to buy Little Debbies
  • switching price tags at Wal-Mart
  • sitting at home watching tv and getting fat

So what have we learned? We've learned that maybe these kids needed a spelling grant more than a PE grant. We've also learned that maybe...just maybe... the PE teacher coached these kids on their answers before the test.

This particular grant is very popular, and we've helped our clients win a lot of them. At last count, 23. And funny things have happened when some school districts get a little too optimistic about their chances of winning a grant. Such as the case where one district--so convinced they would win their just-submitted proposal--actually sold their "old" PE equipment to another school district before the final scores were tallied. Let's call the seller District A and the buyer District B. District B had also applied for the same PEP grant, but were less keen on their chances. So just imagine District A's embarrassment when they had to ask for their stuff back later when their grant didn't win. (Compounding the shame, District B actually won their grant.)

And don't let me fool you into thinking I'm above this kind of behavior. I've been given permission on more than one occasion to just "make up" a heart-tugging anecdote to bring our need for a particular grant right on home. Because I love to make stuff up, this has been pretty enjoyable for me. Once I wrote about a migrant farm worker student named Miguel. Miguel really needed after-school literacy support, what with living in a trailer, taking care of his younger brother, and missing so much school during the potato harvest. And as I tried to make the case for a different alternative education program, I had great fun outlining what will happen to at-risk Jimmy if he doesn’t receive this program. I can’t recall my exact language because I’ve blocked it from memory in shame, but it went something along the lines of: if little Jimmy doesn’t have this alternative education opportunity, little Jimmy will someday be anally raped in prison by his skulking, stinky cell mate. Only you've got to imagine it written in really bad prose, building to an awful, detailed climax. I can still hear my former boss’s laughter echoing down the halls to my cubicle as he read my tale. In my defense, this was my second month on the job, and I had no clue what I was doing.

Bottom line: if you want the grant, keep the ass rape and flowery fiction to a minimum, but a well-designed survey will always be time well spent.

One final story because I've got diarrhea of the blog. Once, in a grant planning meeting I was trying to explain to a teacher how "Bad" statistics are actually good for grant writing. Another client of mine had just discovered alarming suicidal tendencies in their students (despite their overall academic success and great property tax base). So I told the teacher about this wealthy client's strategy for establishing need and designing a program and tactfully asked, "So how’s your depression or suicide rate?" She sat back, somewhat defeated. "God," she said after a moment, "It’s pretty low." Then she perked up. "Maybe we should do an informal survey!" Her eyes began to twinkle. "Go into the halls and ask the kids, “How ya feelin’ today? Kinda sad? How’d you do on that math test? That bad, eh? Doesn’t it make you feel like life is just sometimes not worth living?”

That's the spirit, my friend. But actually, we ended up comparing the number of people to the number of cows in the county (look how rural and sparsely populated we are! Doesn't it break your heart?) and won the grant that way.

So, in conclusion, all together now: Anal rape: bad. A well-designed survey: good.

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