Taking It for Granted, Part 1: What Are Grants, Anyway?

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By Dr. Merewyn “Libba” Lyons

However large or small your operating budget is, there never seems to be enough money to accomplish all of your goals. Perhaps you’ve been told to “go find some grant money for this,” and you’re not sure where to begin—or if grant money is even available to fill the gap. Over the next five weeks, we’ll take deep dive into grant funding, starting with the basics.

What Grants Are

The Oxford Dictionary defines a grant as “a sum of money given by an organization, especially a government, for a particular purpose.” For the linguists among you, it comes the Latin credere “to entrust” through Old French granter “to consent to support.”

These ancient definitions, still valid today, capture the purpose of a grant as anything a funder consents to entrust to you in order to achieve a specific goal. Essentially, a grant establishes a relationship between the grantor and grantee based on specific expectations for performance.

Grant funding is seed money for social innovation. Funders are looking for new, creative, sustainable ways to solve problems and have a positive impact on society. Creating a partnership with Learning Sciences International to develop Schools for Rigor is a good example. They’re looking for evidence that gives a strong indication that your project, if implemented, will achieve these goals.

What Grants Are Not

Grants are not loans. Assuming that you faithfully carry out the work you described, and that the funder has approved, there is no requirement to repay grant money. However, the funder does expect to see results and some return on investment of philanthropic dollars. If they don’t see this, they’re less likely to continue funding your work.

WARNING: if you decide to change the approach, scope, or anything else about your grant-funded project, you must obtain the funder’s permission before proceeding. If you do not, it is certain that you will be required to refund all grant dollars received, even if you have spent them all. I have seen this happen, and it hasn’t been pretty. Don’t go there. Stay in contact with your funder and get their advice and approval before you make any changes.

Why You Should Apply For a Grant

Is your project important enough that you have to find some way to do it, with or without grant funding? If the answer is “yes,” you’re in a good position.

This may sound paradoxical, but funders want assurance that you’ll sustain the work after the grant funding is gone. They want to know that you’re so committed to the project, you would proceed even without their help. If you’ve already invested your own resources into the project, have some preliminary evidence that it’s working, and need extra support to kick it into high gear, you’ll be able to demonstrate a level of “skin in the game” that funders want to see.

Funders Usually Aren’t Interested in Supporting Projects That…
  • Support a large portion of your general operating expenses. If you’re relying solely on grant funds to carry out day-to-day functions, sustainability is clearly not there. Even large federal grants like Title I require sustainability, otherwise known as Maintenance of Effort.
  • Would cease to exist without grant funding. If your willingness to proceed is entirely contingent upon using someone else’s money, save yourself time and effort and don’t apply for a grant.
  • Would help to purchase material things, such as equipment or other supplies, unless they are absolutely necessary for accomplish the goals of your proposed project or program.


Check back next week to continue learning about ways to seek grant funding through the development of concept papers, find funders for your project, write letters of inquiry, and respond to Requests for Proposals.


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