Pro Tips for Getting Grants!

SBO Staff • ChoralFeatureJanuary/February 2020 • February 17, 2020

Share This:

Need a grant for your super-cool music ed (or other) program? Here are some hot tips (and some NOT tips) from someone who’s won half a BILLION (with a B!) dollars in grant funding.


Connect with Other Disciplines. Yeah, we know you want to stand alone and don’t play well with others, but for funders’ sake, at least pretend to be connected. (I hate group work, too, but as much as I hate to admit it, we are better together.) Can you connect music to math? History? (Hello, Hamilton?!) Reading? Science? If it’s “on the test”, you’ll get more attention (and more money). It’s sad, but true. And if you can show connection to state or national standards (yours and/or theirs), even better.

Connect with Other Partners. Who can you play with that would add value to your team? The weirder/cooler/more unexpected, the better, but don’t overlook the obvious partners, too. Businesses? Community groups? Colleges/universities? Daycares? Museums? Libraries? Arts groups? Entrepreneurs? Professional networking groups? Sports? Law? Alumni partners? Tutoring organizations? College to career prep? Really, it just boils down to how creative do you want to be? EXPLORE!

Make a Splash During Out-of-School-Time. Make use of “fallow” time like those Saturdays, summers, holidays, and other times kids would be getting into trouble if it weren’t for your super amazing and engaging program. I’ve won loads of money for before- and after-school programs that just keep kids excited about music/movement/dance/hip-hop/cooking/nutrition/yoga/whatever it is you’re passionate about. If you’re turned on about it, you can turn kids on about it, and I’ll bet you can turn funders on about it and turn it into money. Now don’t make me get all political here (the “current climate” is not that favorable toward 21st Century Community Learning Centers, which have traditionally been a GREAT source of funding for enrichment courses that get kids of all ages excited about the arts and related cool stuff), but we ALL know that this is what juices kids (and teachers!) up and makes the regular school day worth the slog. If you see an opportunity to advocate for enrichment funding, bring out your inner activist! The arts are worth it! (But you already knew that!)

Know that, sometimes, the best “technology” isn’t any. It doesn’t have to be fancy to be good. I like to say, “Sometimes, the best ‘technology’ is a piece of paper and a pencil.” Or whatever it is that you are wielding. Don’t worry if your program doesn’t involve the latest Jetsons-era space-age-y-ness. The main thing is, can you get the grant reviewer—you know, the human that is reading your proposal—excited about the program you’re actually proposing? If so, then that’s good enough! (And if you do have cool technology, then I’m all for that, too!)

Get the Parents Involved. And when I say “parents”, I mean the adults in the household. Stepparents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, foster parents, whomever. Whatever grownups seem to care about the child in question—bring ‘em! Just connect to multiple generations, and you’ve got a new dimension that sets you apart from others. Emphasize it!

Give Your Program a Cool Name. You don’t name your child “girl” or “boy.” No—you give a lot of thought to what you’re going to actually call the child, and you should do the same for your grant program as well. Just make sure the acronym doesn’t spell something wacky or vile. Bonus points if it’s a cool word on its own. Project STAR is okay but sort of overdone, for example. But at least if it has a name, you don’t have to say “the program” or “the project” throughout the entire proposal. Having a name for the reviewer to latch on to gives your project some personality. You know, like it does for your actual child!

Use the Language of the Questions in Your Reponses. Yes, it looks formulaic. Yes, it works. Trust me. When the grant asks you to write about the timeline for implementation, your response should be “The timeline for implementation is….” Just like that. Lead the reader down the path to the points you want them to give you. Don’t get it twisted. Yours might be the 10th grant proposal they’ve read that night. Yours might be the only thing standing between them and a good night’s sleep. Help them help you. Show them where you are answering the questions. This is not the time to be “creative”. Just answer the question!

Be a Grant Reviewer. Seriously, this is the best advice I’ve ever gotten, and I pass it along every chance I get. If you have a chance to read and score grants like those you want to win, you will learn more about how to win than you ever dreamed possible because you will see 3, 5, 7, even 10 grant applications for the same competition at once. You’ll immediately see what makes an application GREAT and what makes an application HORRIBLE. You’ll see models worth emulating and others worth….nothing. Word to the wise: If you see a table, graphic, paragraph, or other section that is super-fantastically awesome, do not plagiarize it! Instead, ask yourself, “How can I adapt this to my program/subject/situation/context?” and then do that. Use the structure, not the content. That is fair game.

Get Outside Eyes on Your Work. Whether you hire someone or just get a trusted colleague to review your writing, do get someone to review what you’ve written. If you insist on being the only one to write and submit, you’re doomed. As a contractor who’s charged with pulling info out of people’s heads, I can tell you that what you put on paper PLUS what’s in your head will equal a complete picture. My job is to ensure that EVERYTHING gets “on the paper.” And people pay me big bucks to make sure that’s what gets done. If you want to go the DIY route, fine. But make sure you get someone completely outside of your field to read what you’ve written. If they can understand what’s on your page with no questions left, then you’ve done a great job. If they’re left wondering about your jargon, your acronyms, or your program, you must go back to the drawing board because your grant reviewer will be left wondering, too, and that is NOT good.


Split Up the Sections Among Your Team. This is the mark of an amateur. Yes, it might be expeditious to share the “burden” of writing, but it’s NOT going to win you any money. You’ll end up with a patchwork quilt of a narrative, and it will suck. You’ll have as many “voices” as you have people in the mix, and you’ll leave too much key information out. Just don’t do it.

Apply Before You’re Ready. This is especially true of private funding. With private funders, you usually get one shot a year. If you are rejected, you have to wait a whole year before you can apply again, so if your application is terrible, not only will the funder be likely to remember your crappy first try, but you’ll be prevented from reapplying for 12 more months. Better to hold off, put together a really great application, and submit when you are pretty sure you’ve got a great fit and a good shot at the funding.

Cut Yourself (or Your Program) to Fit the Funding Guidelines. This is a recipe for disaster. Just like dating a girl (or a guy) who wasn’t exactly your type, if you try to shoehorn your program to fit a funder just because you’re chasing the money, you will hate it (and them and yourself) the entire time you’re under their funding period. Don’t clothe yourself with the stink of desperation. It’s just not sexy. Everyone suffers.

Quit. Hey, I’ve been doing this since 1996, and even I don’t win every time. But I don’t quit. I know I’m good. I know I have great clients with awesome programs, and I learn something every time I win and lose. If you’re writing applications for public funding, you’ll get reviewers’ comments. Read them. Find out what they liked and didn’t like and make improvements for your next application. (You don’t have to take every comment as gospel, but overall, they’ve got good suggestions. Take most of them.) Sometimes, your application was awesome, but the race was tight, and you only missed by a few points. Take the loss in the spirit of the game and know you were close. You can’t win them all, but the loss doesn’t mean you suck. Come back and try again.

Okay, so you’ve read through all of my do’s and don’ts and you still have questions. I get that. This is hard stuff. So, get in touch with me. Here are several ways to do that: Cell: 850.691.9851 (Text is best. I don’t have voicemail because I’m terrible about listening to it, but I’ll answer calls if I’m available.)

Web: (You can also see my resume, selected wins, and client list online at my about us page.) Email:

Let’s connect!

Jan Mitchell Johnson is the energetic founder and president of Grantsformation, Inc., a highly successful education fundraising consulting firm that works for clients all over the United States. After serving 10 tours of duty as a middle school teacher and assistant principal, Jan discovered that her real superpower is Turning Words into Money, which she used to help Houston schools earn over $20 million in funding for education projects and programs in just three years. Since founding her own company in January 1, 2003, Jan’s clients have won another $455 million in state and federal grants and over $25 million in private funding, bringing her career total to more than HALF A BILLION DOLLARS so far. The mission of Grantsformation is to obliterate the conversation that “nonprofit” = “no money.” Nonprofit is simply a business model that requires surplus revenues be used to achieve organizational goals rather than distributed to shareholders. It in NO WAY means organizations are limited in the amount of money they can raise or allocate to fulfill their mission, deploy their programs, or compensate their talented team. Jan holds a certificate for strategic foresight (futures studies), an M. Ed. in educational administration, a B. S. in elementary education, and two lifetime Texas teacher certifications. She speaks the language of education and educators and is grateful for a career that makes a difference.

The Latest News and Gear in Your Inbox - Sign Up Today!