The Trial and Error of Grant Writing

Type: Article
Topics: Finance & Budgets, School Administrator Magazine

December 01, 2023

The author of winning applications from small school districts paves the path for better results and fewer missteps

At a time of high inflation, where every dollar is more crucial than ever, securing outside funds through grant writing is an essential function for public schools. Soliciting third-party grants can leverage existing funding streams and provide new or strengthened services to students.

It is easy for school leaders to get stars in their eyes and imagine all the money rolling in when a federal government agency or private funder publishes a list of available grants. But there are far more grants out there soliciting applications than there are good grants that would benefit your school district. Having a comprehensive sense of your organization and its needs is important before beginning to seek grant support.

Developing grant-writing skills is a trial-and-error process. I experienced this learning curve firsthand. A decade ago, the superintendent of my small, rural district asked me to help write a grant because I was the English department chair. My first couple of grant submissions were hit-or-miss, but each time I learned new strategies to become a more competitive applicant. One of the grants we sought was to improve an alternative program for chronically absent high school students. We got the grant, the superintendent named me principal of the program, and we grew it to serve more than 100 students.

Often student needs go unmet because school district administrators don’t know where to start and don’t have time. I can tell you it’s one step at a time.

In the years since, I have helped many small and rural school districts secure grants. Along the way, I learned how to produce winning applications. There are some central pieces of advice I have learned, as well as a couple of pitfalls.

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Alex Mackey

Senior research associate

Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Indigenous Health, Baltimore, Md.

Using Grants.Gov is a federal website that streamlines the process of finding and applying for federal grants among multiple agencies at no charge. You can set up a free account and apply filters to easily screen for grants that interest you and reduce the number of grants you would not qualify for.

All active or expected grants are presented in a chronological list beginning with the most recent posting. Filters allow you to search for grant opportunities by eligibility criteria, category (such as education, health or food and nutrition) and funding agency. A keyword search box allows you to see those results with that word included in the grant’s title.

Filters also allow you to screen out grants that are irrelevant such as those administered by the State Department that are only awarded to organizations in foreign countries. After setting and refining these newsletter filters, the job of identifying potential grants is almost done for you.’s website includes resources such as advice for writing federal grants, a blog about federal grant writing and a comprehensive learning center as well as tutorials to help navigate the site.

The Reach of Modest Grant Writing in a Rural Oklahoma District


Woman with brown hair smiling and posing against brick wall
Tanya Jones

In the rural, northeastern corner of Oklahoma about 60 miles from Tulsa is the picturesque city of Tahlequah. The foothills of the Ozark mountains surround our community, and an active Native American population keeps tribal traditions alive.

As superintendent of Tahlequah Public Schools, we are filling some critical gaps between needs and revenues. My small grants team generates nearly $8 million annually from local, state and federal grants and community partners. Every year, we receive multiple small external donations of perhaps $500 each and several large grants that generate $150,000 a year.

We use these funds to help vulnerable children and families, many of whom live in poverty, by enriching academic programs, providing for basic needs, offering mental health services and much more. That mission keeps us motivated. The five-member team, including me (a former director of grants and federal programs in the district), write, track and oversee all grants. Everyone has other responsibilities in our 3,600-student district.

For years, we have successfully developed and managed grants.

Three-Point Review
  1. Several years ago, we set our sights on improving literacy and sought a new large multiyear competitive grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. We knew competition would be stiff and that pulling together a large grant would take months of effort. So before we invest time and effort for a full-fledged application, we vet the grant and grantor. Three important steps will help you gauge the fit.
  2. Review the grantor’s mission and goals. Some 60 percent of our students are Native Americans who represent nearly 30 tribes, and for many, reading scores were low. These demographics are key targets for competitive grants.
  3. Check the typical size of grants awarded against your budget. Federal grants can offer years of stable funding, which is a necessity for districtwide reforms such as our preK-12 literacy initiative. Our budget proposal included a new curriculum and professional development for teachers in the science of reading.

Research the fine print. Some grants have qualifications such as requiring the district to partner with a community organization or to serve a specific population. Fortunately, our research revealed this grant was a fit. At that point, our attitude was, “We have nothing to lose and everything to gain.”

Keys to Success

The three keys to successfully managing a grant are a deep knowledge about your school community, a vision and hard work.

Smart grant writers create a distinctive profile that includes basic facts about the district, including demographics, community statistics, achievement data and survey data, that apply to every grant application. Find a mentor with grant-writing experience and seek advice from community coalitions that can help you locate and write grants. Hire a professional grant writer to work with you on large-scale projects.

This is not easy work. If you do not get funded, ask for feedback! Failure is one of our greatest teachers, too. Persevere!

Meaningful Grants

Student mental health is a priority now for many districts. In Tahlequah, we’ve found grants that support staff positions, including counselors, social workers, school resource officers, student advocates, nurses and academic coaches. Grants provided us with “calm rooms” for students, programs to help at-risk youth and an outreach center.

We help families enroll in federal assistance programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as SNAP, and assist families with basic needs through CARE teams, food pantries and backpack programs.

This is not nearly a complete list of the services and staff we have provided through the braiding of funds. Amazingly, the district has sustained many of these programs for years.

Tanya Jones is superintendent of Tahlequah Public Schools in Tahlequah, Okla.