Grant Writing: Shaking the Money Tree

SBO Staff • ChoralGuest EditorialSeptember 2011 • September 20, 2011

Grant writing is not hard, just a little time consuming. Whether you’re an instrumental or choral instructor, grants are out there for your use. My suggestion for everyone is: “Go for it.” The worst they can do to you is say no. However, if you don’t even try, you will never know if there is a “Yes” out there.

Grant writing and corporate sponsorship are by far the most mysterious and challenging ways of obtaining funding for a music program. I have been writing grants for about 20 years. Sometimes I get lucky, sometimes I don’t. However, every year we get something. The past 15 or so years, however, have been entirely different because I really started widening my scope of inquiry as to where grants can be found with success. It is absolutely amazing where some funds come from. For my one high school band program, I was able to secure $260,000 in grants for new instruments, and another in excess of over $100,000 when we raised over $250,000 for the band’s trip to play for the 53rd Presidential Inaugural Parade (for President Clinton) in 1997, and we only needed $130,000 to go. We used the excess money to remodel the band room. From there, I taught my music students to write their own simple grants for our tours. Since 1997 both my students’ parents and I have secured funds close to 750,000 dollars, mostly for tours. We have toured Washington, D.C. (twice), Colorado (twice), Hawaii, Canada (four times), Italy, and three times to The Peoples Republic of China. Most all of my students had their way partially or fully paid by someone else. I can now account for over $2 million that has crossed my desk over the past 15 years.

But that was then, now is now. The economy has crashed, and music teachers are looking anywhere they can for sources of funds. Fortunately, most foundations are still active. Yes, they have been inundated with requests, but their desire to support our causes still exists.


You Only Have To Ask

When I originally started writing grants, it was usually for operational funding of the regular year-to-year expenses of running a general high school band program. For example, I always knew that certain smaller foundations in the area will give $1,000-$2,000 to any music program that sent a simple request. Some of the larger agricultural corporations and construction companies in the area will do the same. While this was not enough to really answer our real problems of aging instruments and uniforms, getting those smaller grants can start to add up.

About 20 years ago, I accepted a hard reality. Through extensive studying of my school districts budget, I came to only one conclusion. The district wasn’t trying to cover up its financial problems. They really didn’t have any extra money. In recent years it has gotten so bad the state has us on their “worried list” that we may financially fail. Therefore, going to them wasn’t going to solve my equipment problem.

With that in mind, I changed the format of my grant writing. I focused on the actual problem, rather than operational costs. I also backed up my grant letter with proof that my program was strong and had community and district support. I showed specific amounts needed, and what, how, and when the instruments would be used. Grant givers want the security that what they fund will be used as stated, and in an appropriate manner. They really like to know their investment will last for years to come. School musical instruments do just that. I have instruments we have maintained that are over 30 years old, still in use, and equal in quality to the day they were first bought. This is what grant makers like to hear.


Here are the major issues most grant makers and corporate sponsors are interested in:


1. The school and/or district general operation budget, including the portion designated for the music program. Annual Music Booster and ASB end-of-year budget reports are very good to have. Often, grant makers view those with the idea of possibly matching funds. They also do not want to know they are the only support for a program. As long as there is documented cash flow, everything should be okay. This is the only area where it would be appropriate to show yearly general operating expenses. They may also request a copy of the budget for the year in which the grant will be spent. Sometimes they also like to see the most recent financial statements (budget) that have been or are being audited.  ASB offices are always audited, as are district accounts. If the booster group is set up as a 501c3, a copy of their final end or year tax statement may be all that is needed. Other grants received in past years would also be a good thing to show. If grant makers see that a program is receiving grants from other groups, this is looked on as a positive.


2. The specific budget for the improvements to be implemented. This should include any quotations or bids received for the equipment and improvements to be purchased. Do not give them the general operating budget of a basic program as part of a grant request. Many grant providers thing general operation of school music program should be the district’s or boosters’ responsibility (and, in reality, it should be). If a district can’t afford what a music program needs, only then should you let the grant makers know.


3. A description of how the success or differences made by the grant funds received will be evaluated. This is often called an “impact report.” Say what is expected to happen. This can be included in a general statement on what the grant will be used for. I personally find impact reports the hardest part of the grant request. Some organizations may ask for both a pre-impact report and a post impact report after grants have been awarded.  They just want to know if the grant worked as intended. Small variables really have no impact of future grants.


4. The approval and signature of the superintendent of schools for the district – a “Verification of Need.” It would be nice if the superintendent also supported the reasoning for the application. In most cases, the superintendent will already know exactly what kind of letter is needed from him. It simply verifies from a district level that what is being requested is on the “up-and-up.”


5. Any other efforts that have been made to raise additional funding for projects. These efforts can include other grant requests and grants received, fundraisers, PTA resources, school site funds, music boosters clubs, and more. For example, if you have a healthy booster organization with a strong financial base, that might be of great value to grant makers. Please note that if they request to meet with booster officers, make sure they are there. Often times grant makers want to meet with the actual 501c3. This usually means they are interested in your project. Do what they ask.


6. Other items they may request include: 

• A current IRS letter of determination (every district office should have this), and a copy of the music booster club’s IRS 501c3. There are a lot of foundations and corporations that would rather donate to a non-profit organization than the school, as less paperwork is required.

• List of the sources from which your organization has received funding, both public and private (this may be already be covered in step #1 above), and for some reason, they want to know what your music booster board and school board members’ affiliations (occupations) are. It could be that they are watching out for conflicts of interest. They could also be willing to support individuals and companies they do business with on those boards.


7. If they have their own application, use it! If you have your grant on your computer, you can often download the application online. Then the information can be transferred directly to their grant application. Be careful! Include what they want in the manner they want. If it says eight lines or less, make sure it is eight lines or less! Most grant makers will turn down a grant if the application does not use their form or follow their template.


All of the above seems like a lot. Some grant makers that use their own format and template now provide a checklist, which is so useful for anyone who is new to this. Just work on one item at a time, and eventually it all get done correctly.

Locating Grants and Corporate Funds

Any money donated from any corporation, foundation, or individual is a form of a grant. Any grant requests from a local corporation can usually be directed to their main office, along with a request that it be forwarded to their foundation or contribution fund. Most companies will know what to do with such requests, and this is true across most industries. I have many electronic and agricultural companies in my area. I send often send the same grant to as many as I feel will donate to music education.

When working on a corporate sponsorship for a project, be sure to send a letter of request to see if they are willing to consider it. I do corporate sponsorships for tours. I put together a packet just like a grant addressing the project we are working on or towards. Be sure to send an extra copy of the request to their marketing director.  They may want to use your group in advertising.

Most counties have a single source for finding the addresses of grant makers. In mine, it is called “The Community Foundation for Monterey County.” They are also called “Regional Foundations.” I found this organization by talking to my district’s business manager. Others sources might be found by calling the county office of education or the county government offices. Grant makers are also easily found on the Web, by searching for “foundations” and the name of a county. Several websites I have often used include for national grant givers, and ( then search for [Foundations/Your State]. Please note that many list the counties they are willing to fund.

The list of statewide grant makers is much harder to find. I would take time to read the areas they like to cover so as not to be wasting my time. Also, if it says grants are made to education or the fine arts, it may be worth a quick call to see if these include music education. Again, no need to waste time. It is appropriate to actually contact selected large corporate foundations and ask if they grant to a particular county or area. County grant makers are much more likely to support local projects.  Because most foundations are now online, it’s easy to look up the types of organizations and projects they fund, along with any restrictions.

When sending out grants, send the project request to several grant makers. I send out about 25 per year. Don’t be discouraged if success doesn’t come immediately. I usually get two or three responses, and that is money I would never have gotten if I hadn’t tried. It is never the same foundation every year.  But I send one to all the grant makers I have on my list.  It has happened several times where I have been turned down at first, later called to see if we could apply for another grant, and then found out that they have extra money available.

Remember: if you say nothing, expect nothing. And if you’re turned down, the only thing you have lost is time. However, consistency year after year will land you something, eventually.

Additional Resources & Guidelines

Music Matters Grant  Program 

The Muzak Heart & Soul Foundation’s Music Matters Grants are open to schools and music programs throughout the United States. Grant amounts range from $1,000 to $12,000 and are made on an annual one-time basis. Music education – vocal or instrumental – must be the key component of any music program requesting funds. Public school programs (qualifying for Title I federal funding and serving a minimum of 70 percent low-income students) or non-profit programs directly funding music education (serving students regardless of their ability to pay) should apply. Schools and programs must already employ a music educator and have an existing music program in place. Grant requests must articulate specific music program needs – for existing and/or planned programs.

National Endowment for the Arts’ Learning in the Arts for Children and Youth 

The NEA’s Learning in the Arts for Children and Youth grant does not make awards directly to individual elementary or secondary schools — charter, private, or public. However, schools may participate as partners in projects for which another eligible organization applies. Local education agencies (school districts) and state and regional education agencies are eligible. If a single school also is the local education agency, as is the case with some charter schools, the school may apply with documentation that supports its status as the local education agency.

The NEA offers the following guidelines, divided into two areas:


School-based projects are for children and youth between kindergarten and grade 12, are directly connected to the school curriculum and instructional program, and ensure the application of national or state arts education standards. Such activities may take place in or outside of the school building at any time of the day. This includes after-school and summer enrichment programs that are formally connected to school curricula. Projects also may address professional development for teachers, teaching artists, and school administrators.


Community-based projects are for children and youth generally between ages five and 18. This area supports important activities and training in the arts that occur outside of the school system. Activities must occur outside of the regular school day, and may take place in a variety of settings. These activities may be offered by arts organizations or by other community-based, non-arts organizations or agencies in partnership with artists and arts groups. While not formally linked to schools or their instructional programs, projects must be based on a curriculum that ensures the application of national or state arts education standards. Projects may include professional development for teachers, artists, and program providers.

Coming Up Taller

The Federal government’s Coming Up Taller Awards recognize and support outstanding community arts and humanities programs that celebrate the creativity of young people, provide them learning opportunities, and chances to contribute to their communities. These awards focus national attention on exemplary programs currently fostering the creative and intellectual development of America’s children and youth through education and practical experience in the arts and the humanities. Accompanied by a cash award, the Coming Up Taller Awards also contributes support to a project’s continued work.

Award recipients receive $10,000 each, an individualized plaque, and an invitation to attend the annual Coming Up Taller Leadership Enhancement Conference.

Coming Up Taller is an initiative with the Institute of Museum and Library Services, National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Coming Up Taller Award operates as a program for children and youth in pre-school, after-school, weekend and/or summer programs, however, may have a school-based component or use school space.


D.L. Johnson is the past president of CMEA – The California Association For Music Education. He has been in music education for 30 years, and has been director of bands at North Monterey County High School for 28 years. D.L. Johnson’s bands have performed all over the country, including California’s sole representative to the 53rd Presidential Inauguration Parade for William Clinton and the 2004 WWII Memorial dedication. His groups have also performed in Canada, Colorado, Oregon, Hawaii, Washington, D.C., Italy, and China. 

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