A Word of Wisdom for Professors

The Chronicle of Higher Education- How to Help New Hires Get Research Money

Karen M. Markin

August 14, 2013


Do your job better[1]


A Reaction:

I first came across this article in my Facebook newsfeed. As a knee jerk reaction (which I will explain later) I immediately gravitated to the title like a moth to a flame. One of my family members, a professor and longtime educator, posted the link.

Ms. Markin makes it clear in her article that although fundraising support may be available at your institution; educators (from their first year onward) may be given the daunting task to fend for themselves. One of my relatives’ Facebook friends rightfully asked, “Where is the development office support?”

This question should not be rhetorical but in conversation with other educators, a resounding silence follows the inquiry like an absent student’s voice during roll call. The awkward silence that lingers reflects a resounding truth: there may be very little support for educators to meet this great responsibility. The reader then has to ponder about the implications for educators who are in this situation.

Let’s transition to the reason why I was attracted to the article’s title. I read Ms. Markin’s article through the lens of a full time nonprofit professional. I’ve worked in nonprofit programs for nearly ten years and I am a graduate of Texas A&M University (Bush School of Government, Nonprofit Management Concentration); I am now a grants and contracts specialist in the nonprofit sector in Texas. I disclose my background to make one statement: people go to school and dedicate their lives towards fundraising. Just as teachers respond to the call to teach, I and many others in my peer group in graduate school responded to a call to nonprofit service with specific attention to the craft of fundraising.

You as educators are asked to roll up your sleeves, plan for your course work, teach the next generation of leaders and then, by the way, pursue an endeavor that is worthy of the devotion and time of a separate life calling…grant proposal writing.

Grant proposal writing does not entail a simple submission of an essay. The Chronicle of Philanthropy sites a dramatic increase of young adults who initially enter the field of nonprofit management as their intended career of choice just as I did.[2]

If you are asked to move forward with a grant proposal casually by your leadership with no support from your development team, please remember that “it is not just you” if you feel like it is a big duty. Fundraising is the art of convincing others to become your friend, to support your cause, and to give repeatedly with a smile. This is not always easy.

Ok. I am tired of my view from the soap box (stepping down now). Whether or not it is right, you have research to complete and deadlines to meet.  Markin’s article provides excellent suggestions on how to move forward with your fundraising efforts. However, I build off of her suggestions with some specific tools of the craft that will provide a jump start to the fundraising efforts of rookie and long-time professor alike.

Get a Good List

Ms. Markin talks about how grant writers enjoy lists. This cannot be exaggerated. If you are a new professor, you ought to meet with senior staff that had success in their fundraising efforts. Write down the steps your colleagues took towards their walk towards successful applications. Markin stresses visits with successful professors. I also urge visits with colleagues who may not have as many marks in the win column. You can learn just as much vicariously through others’ struggles and save your own time in the long run. Of course, if a list already exists, use it. But first check to ensure the steps are updated to current staff and other details.

Once you have a good list make sure that your department and your development office approve of the major steps. Perhaps there are steps that require organizational documentation (such as a 501 C 3 letters or specific research from a colleague or quarterly reports). Lists are no good if the only person who uses it is you. Make sure there is some sort of “buy in” into the list organization-wide. The best way for buy in to happen is to have every key player be part of making the list. I understand this may not be feasible in all situations. But one way to make it happen could be at summer or winter training sessions. Use time in-between semesters to gear up and get everyone on the same page. In addition to the list, have a shared grants calendar so all staff know when deadlines or when specific data will be required for reporting. Set false deadlines one week in advance of the true deadline to ensure on time reporting.  Eventually a list should become standard operating procedure for your department.

Lists that lead to winning proposals should be followed with caution. Markin notes how winning proposals can be used as models for future appeals to funders. However, just because an application was successful does not mean that that winning proposal will regain support if submitted again to the same funder. Foundations[3] often change their giving guidelines which means what they wanted to support last year may not be the same this year (a point that will be elaborated later). Also, a simple copy and paste technique is a good way to get into trouble. Many family foundations are managed by family relatives who sincerely read applications line by line. Lazy effort may be noticed easily. Avoid this error by providing updated program information. Here is one technique to consider: provide a draft of your proposal on a projector in a conference room. Invite critique from colleagues; use the comment feature of Word to make notes and record suggestions. Opening the drafting process up to more people can help shake the monotony of grant proposal writing.


Meet the Grantors

Markin recommends that you travel to the funder to see them face to face. Meeting with the funder when there is no money promised shows that you are interested in forming a partnership. Nonprofit fundraising theory shows that “people give to people”[4]. In other words, the better you form relationships with others, the more likely you will receive their support. For example, if you are pursuing funds from a local foundation, you may want to invite the president of the foundation to campus, to a lab tour, or to even have them participate in an experiment. It is important for the possible partner to have the chance to connect with your mission with a “hands on” experience. When you go to ask for funds, the foundation should be familiar with you. Granted, this may not be the case for government funds which are colder in nature. However, in the housing sector I find that sending courtesy emails about my organization’s deadlines or sending event invitations (when appropriate) all help to form that bond.

When you look for fundraising opportunities first look at current or past supporters. Again, organizations are led by people; and people give to people they know. You are more likely to get repeat funding than a request to a new organization.

Use Databases to Find New Opportunities

I agree with Markin’s advice to use databases that your school uses. I recommend the Foundation Center[5] because you can use their intuitive interface to look for key work issue areas that more closely align with your program need.

Foundation Identification Questions:

  • Is the foundation or funder compatible with the mission of your school?
  • Is your work religiously based? Does the foundation require any religious criteria? Will that criterion harm your current financial commitments?
  • Are you in the foundation’s service area?
  • Given the funding priorities, are you able to meet the obligations of the grant if you win it? Never chase money; you can easily enter mission drift if you only apply for funding and do not consider implications of awards.
  • Know the terms of the award – are all funds distributed at once? If so at what time? Are funds compensated? Does the grant funding meet your fiscal year deadlines and requirements?

Tips for Writing:

  • Look locally. Foundations and corporations want to give where they live and in their communities so they can see the tangible impact.
  • Once you find local opportunities, make a case for your research and the tangible impact it may have on the community; number of children, number of students. Place it in context.
  • If you cannot find local opportunities, pay attention to the concerns of the funder and argue that you can meet those concerns from your campus (similar to an “act locally, think globally” argument).
  • Check your own school board for their contacts in the community. They may be able to network on your behalf.
  • Make sure staff can be allocated to the reporting; if reporting is as complicated as the application and if you have limited staff, you may not be able to pursue application. Again, make sure you visit that check list and that everyone is aware of what will be expected of them once funding is awarded.
  • Know the timeline for the grant funds and the timeline for your project. Do they coincide? If not, can you apply for an extension or amendment? The more time you put into knowing your funder and meet with them face to face the easier and less awkward amendments will be.
  • Have a small committee close to the project check the details of the proposal before it is submitted to make sure that all components are present. Funders save time by looking for applicants that are incomplete. Have one or two people who are not close to the project…their perspective will probably similar to the foundation. If they are not convinced to give themselves by the language, re-work the proposal.

Word Choice

  • Make sure your lexicon fits that of funding priorities.
  • For example, if you are writing to a corporate foundation, make the argument that the foundation will make “an investment” in the community and their donation will have significant social “returns”.
  • If it is a government opportunity, focus on the numerical impact or how you will leverage limit funds.

Be Prepared

Have the following items in an electronic folder ready to go in your computer files so you can be ready to build a proposal quickly:

  • Program description
  • Program budget (keep updated as you win support or with added costs)
  • Legal documents such as 501 C 3 Letter of Determination from IRS
  • Past 990
  • List of board members and their affiliations
  • Bios and resumes and credentials of staff on project
  • Program design, budget, timeline, demographic served by research
  • Accountable staff person
  • List of partners and if it will be a matching grant
  • If grant is from federal government may need documentation such as Section 3 and equal opportunity documentation.
  • IRB approval documentation
  • Procurement policies

If you can anticipate the questions from the funder you can proceed and have a common grant application pre-prepared[6]. You can then use this document as a rough draft for any opportunity and customize it accordingly.

Sometimes opportunities can sprout from random places (which is why my eyes initially gravitated to the Facebook link concerning fundraising). If you have your lists, your drafts, and other protocol ironed out you will be in a position to act quickly.

Closing Thoughts

Contact your development office for more advice. The above tips should provide a new professor the tools and insight needed to jump start the process.

If you are looking for more fundraising advice, please feel free to read my blog: yorksnonprofit.com. Or contact me directly at yorksnonprofit@gmail.com .

I leave you with more items to consider.

Tools of the trade –

  • Chronicle of Philanthropy offers training and webinars. They also provide the latest news in fundraising (http://philanthropy.com/section/Home/172).
  • Find the state of association of nonprofits in your state.
    • Texas Association of Nonprofit Organizations and Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations to name two. These organizations provide training on fundraising.
    • Ask your organization to pay for subscription to Foundation Center; a one stop location to find foundations in your region that best fit your research, mission, etc. See past giving history and geographic giving patterns of foundations.
    • Philanthropy Digest; news from specific fields for Request for Proposals.
    • Grants.gov is a good source for federal opportunities.
    • Check with your municipal government and city leadership for funding such as community development; especially if research is in youth development (parks and rec).


I wish you all the best. Thank you for your service to our nation.



Phil York




[2] Switzer, Cody. 2011. “How Fundraisers Got Their Start”. The Chronicle of Philantrhopy. May 2011.  http://philanthropy.com/blogs/prospecting/how-fund-raisers-got-their-start/30076 (01/12/2012).

[3] I use “Foundations” fluid throughout this article as foundations can also refer to government agencies, private individuals, churches or other organizations that provide support.

[4] Weinstein, Stanley.2009. The Complete Guide to Fundraising Management, Stanley Weinstein, Association of Fundraising Professionals.

[6]Common Grant Application: http://www.agmconnect.org/cpf/

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