Once Upon a Time…

One day in June 1988—actually the very next day after graduating with my master’s degree—I received a phone call from an administrator at the local community college. She was looking for someone to write a grant proposal for the college and asked me if I would be interested. I responded that while I was flattered to be asked, I had never written a grant proposal before; how could I possibly write a successful one?

“Don’t worry, “ she replied. “The proposal is pretty straightforward. And if you need some help, just let me know.”

I spent countless hours on that grant. The guidelines provided by the state department of education outlined what was needed. However, it was my first grant proposal, and I wanted to do the best I could.

I also talked to experienced grant writers at the college, read old proposals that had been approved, and asked a lot of questions—a lot of questions! I even watched a videotape on grant writing—which put me to sleep after five minutes. I probably spent more time on that first grant proposal than I did on the next ten combined!

Twelve years later, I had written 52 proposals, 48 of which have been funded. That is an approval rate greater than 92 percent. Added together, these grants have secured over $6,300,000 for nonprofit organizations.

In 1993, due to popular demand, I was asked to teach a workshop on grant writing at the community college. Over 40 people signed up for the workshop. While I had had success in writing proposals, I didn’t know if what worked for me would also work for others.

Like most grant writers, I had had no formal training in grant writing before I got started. So I started teaching intuitively, from personal experience. I found myself explaining the process of grant writing that seemed to work for me. And to complement my personal experience with a textbook, I chose a booklet touted as the “most widely used grant writing format in the world.”

As I spoke and shared my experiences, a model of the grant writing process unfolded that I call the “idea match model.” Basically, this model starts with our ideas—our dreams. We begin by dreaming BIG, allowing our imaginations to move beyond the limitations of what we think we know, perceive, and believe. Then we move our dreams out into the universe by expressing them on paper, including a budget.

Successful grant writing can sometimes be that simple. Dream BIG. Find your passion. Then write down your dreams on paper, add a budget, and share your dreams with those around you. Often, that’s all we need to do. Let go of the need to know right now how our ideas will get manifested. Share our ideas and our enthusiasm first. Magically, sometimes the funder for the dream suddenly shows up.

Recently, I told a class of teachers of arts education in California to practice stating their ideas clearly and concisely, in 30 seconds or less, to people around them. The next day at school, one of the teachers ran into the principal in the hallway. After she shared her idea, the principal responded, “I just met with the PTA, and they’re looking for a great idea to fund this year. I think your idea may be just what they’re looking for.” The art teacher never even had to write a proposal.

However, sometimes the universe—or more specifically a funding source, donor, or support service within our sphere of influence—is necessary to help us realize our dreams. Funders, whether private or public, want to be associated with winning ideas and with credible individuals and organizations. The idea match happens when funders’ ideas of what they want to fund match our ideas of what we want to do.

I’ve got a great idea match story for you. Back in the spring of 1985, I was enrolled in a university course on career development. The final project for the class was to come up with our ideal job. We used inventories of our interests, analyses of our strengths, self-reflection exercises, and other career exploration activities to develop our ideas. Our ideal jobs could be ones that already existed, or we could be creative and make up new ones of our own.

At that time in my life, my dream was to create and direct a second-language learning program for adults. I had just moved to Reno after two years of living in Mexico, teaching English as a second language (ESL) and learning Spanish as a second language (SSL). I envisioned a model program that would provide innovative language learning opportunities, computer-assisted instruction, support services (such as child care, advisement, and tutoring), and creative ways of teaching and learning a second language. The program would incorporate my own experiences of having taught ESL and having learned Spanish as an adult in Mexico. And of course, my ideal job would be to design and then coordinate the program.

I got an “A” on the assignment.

For the next several years I pursued this goal. In the course of my project I had identified a master’s degree as the education I needed for my ideal job. So I enrolled in and completed a master’s degree program in teaching English. In graduate school I studied theories of second-language learning and teaching, while the ideal job lingered in the back of my mind as a 3-to-5-year goal for me to reach. I even kept an outline of my plan in a folder in my closet.

And then, exactly one day after I graduated with my master’s degree, I received that call from the head of the ESL program at the community college, asking me to write a grant for the program. That first grant proposal was written to serve 250 newly legalized immigrants in a year.

Amazingly, over 500 people showed up on our doorstep to take classes during the first week of registration. So, I revised the grant—several times—and asked for more funds. Since we had waiting lists of interested students in hand, the state department of education approved additional funds to serve the increased demand for classes.

I wrote into the grant a position of program coordinator—my ideal job, remember? Of course, the college had to open the position to all qualified applicants, and I had to apply for the job. However, I was confident that they would hire me. How could they refuse me when I was so qualified and so enthusiastic about the project?

Over a 5-year period we received more than $2,500,000 in federal funds to serve more than 3,000 ESL students. We provided hundreds of classes in ESL, as well as classes in citizenship skills, life skills, computer literacy, earning a General Education Diploma (GED, or high school equivalency), getting a driver’s license, college preparation, and more. The program also provided childcare, tutoring, career exploration, and other support services to help immigrants be successful. We rented a 100,000-square-foot space in the heart of the city to serve as the campus. And I hired over 30 teachers and tutors to teach in the program. The program was recognized nationally.

Sharing this story of my first grant with my first grant-writing students in 1993, when I first started teaching grant-writing, an interesting question popped into my head: “Had the final project for my career development class indeed manifested itself three years later?” In other words, had the ideal career magically appeared on the pages of the grant proposal that I was actually paid to write?

Hmmm…

Then I wondered, “Perhaps that class project back in 1985 was basically a statement of my idea to the universe: ‘Here you go, universe. Here’s my dream, my ideal job. And here’s the plan.’” Then I had let go of how the idea would manifest itself. Once I got my master’s degree—one of the prerequisites I had set for my ideal job—the match happened.

My idea — to create a language learning program — matched the funder’s idea. In this example, the funders—specifically, the federal government and the community college—wanted to fund a second-language learning and citizenship program for newly legalized immigrants: “O.K. Here you go. Here’s the funding you need for your idea. To top it off, we’ll pay you to write the grant, and you can include a coordinator position in the grant proposal.”

Since 1993, I have shared these stories with hundreds of students, and they have shared theirs with me. At some point, another thought popped into my mind: “Do other grant writing experts adhere to the same “idea match” model?” It was hard to say. I had interviewed and read student summaries of interviews with dozens of experienced grant writers and funders; there are dozens of ways to approach grant writing and being successful.

I had checked out over 80 grant-writing and related books; there are 80 distinct methodologies. I had surfed the Internet and read student summaries of countless web pages of grant-writing tips; there are as many slants as there are URLs.

In fact, curiosity about what the experts in the field of grant writing think works best led me to design and write a second master’s degree thesis entitled the Metaphysics of Successful Grant Writing. Basically, I wanted to answer two questions:

  1. Do other grant writing experts adhere to the same “idea match” model?
  2. What do the grant writing experts say really works?

My second Master’s degree thesis answered these questions. It verified what I knew intuitively. It lead me to develop a system for teaching and learning grant writing that resulted in my students getting over $1.2 Billion in funding in the first two years. You can hear this story, other stories and our proven system in my popular 30-Day Grant Writing Fast Track …