How To: Apply for Grants and Awards

I was rejected for two different research grants last month.

Despite the opening sentences which read "we regret to inform you --", I view those applications as being triumphs. Because I applied. One of my favorite blog posts of all time is Monica Byrne's "My Anti-Resumé." Upon the publication of her first novel, other artists started asking Byrne how she'd achieved such success, wondering if she might be one of those "pre-ordained Golden Children who Get Everything." To set the record straight, Byrne released her Anti-Resumé -- a spreadsheet of all the literary journals, workshops, conferences, graduate schools, grants, fellowships, residencies, and awards that she'd been rejected from over the years. She discovered that her acceptance rate, the great success that made her the envy of all her friends, was 3%.


This author had been rejected from 97% of the opportunities that she applied for and was still considered, by almost all of her peers, to be unbelievably accomplished. Downloading and perusing the aforementioned anti-resumé has gotten me through some of my greatest disappointments over the past few months. Whenever an email saying "thanks, but no thanks" arrives in my inbox, I remind myself that all it takes is the right 3%.

I wanted to start out with that anecdote because I feel like a lot of teachers (or authors or painters or corporate executives) don't apply because they're afraid that they'll be rejected. And they're right. They will be rejected, but that's okay. So your very first step towards securing that life-changing grant or award is . . . APPLY. And if you get rejected, APPLY AGAIN. (I had drinks last week with a teacher who told me about a Fulbright recipient who applied THREE TIMES before she finally received her grant to the UK.) Once you make the decision to apply, here are my tips and tricks for putting your best self forward:

1. Apply for the Right Grants.
I've struck out more than usual this year because I wanted to test my limits in terms of what "the right grants" means. Sometimes, you can be surprised by the results. (NTSA received a long-shot government grant this season, which we unfortunately had to decline. Believe me, there's nothing more painful than having to turn down desperately-needed funding.) But, more often than not, what you see ends up being what you get. If the grant seems like a long-shot, and you're not a hardcore development junkie like me, don't waste your time applying.

How can you tell if a grant is the right one? Read the funder's mission statement and the specific grant description. Did you just get chills because it sounds like the grant description was written specifically for you and clearly this funder is your spiritual soulmate? Like you two could dominate that ESP connection test where the scientists hold up playing cards? Because unless you're feeling that way, it's not the right grant.

You can take a long-term approach to grant planning. As previously mentioned, I worked on my Fulbright DAT application for EIGHT YEARS. I started filling out the application form before my first day of teaching even started -- and I just submitted the finished product this year. As you might imagine, whenever I made a major career decision (like taking on additional coaching responsibilities or leading professional development workshops), the Fulbright eligibility requirements were never far from my mind. This approach takes patience and commitment. However, I definitely recommend identifying some "reach grants" -- the ones that would represent career-defining moments for you. Read over the eligibility requirements and see how you measure up. Then start brainstorming what you, as a prospective applicant, could do over the next few years to meet those requirements. Not only will you be setting yourself up for grant writing success, you'll also end up taking on new challenges and intellectually stretching yourself in ways you'd never considered before.

2. Know your Funder.
I spend all of my spare time researching. Some folks go out clubbing on the weekends; I go online and peruse grant opportunities. Or, you know, read theological fanfic on AO3. It's all good. (#nerdproblems.) The best way to ensure that you're compatible with your funder and that your proposal sells you (and your program) in the best way possible is to learn everything that you can about previous recipients. Read the sample applications that are sometimes available on the funder's website. Read blog entries and journal articles written by program alumni. Read press releases that have been written about former winners in newspapers. Go through the project descriptions from previous years. Not only will this help you determine if you're a good fit for the grant, you'll also be able to start deciphering what's important to that particular funder. Do you notice that all of the previous winners have something in common? Maybe they all come from a certain geographical area, even though the competition is technically "open to all." Maybe they have a component that integrates members of the community, or maybe they work with a certain population of students (low SES, high SPED/ESL, gifted and talented, etc.). You can use this information to help you "position" your proposal in a way that's more appealing to your funder (like finding a community partner or emphasizing how your project will be specifically valuable to the SPED students at your school).

Depending on the grant, you may want to consult your college or university. Most have a fellowship advisor who works with current students and sometimes alumni as well, especially for high-profile grants like the Fulbright. (If you receive a major grant, make sure to email alumni affairs and let them know. I just received an absolutely charming letter from Barnard College, congratulating me!)

3. Be Passionate about your Project.
Do not find a funder and then try to design a project for them. Instead, design a project and then find a funder that fits your needs. I've seen many Fulbright blogs advise prospective applicants to a) decide to apply, b) select a host country from the Fulbright listing, and then c) create a project that's relevant to the host country. They've done everything backwards here. You need to figure out what you want to learn/accomplish, then choose a host country that can fulfill your needs, and THEN you have to research funders who can help you travel there. Maybe you discover that the Fulbright's completely wrong for you. No big deal. There are tons of other teacher travel grants out there (Fund for Teachers, Teachers for Global Classrooms, etc.). Or maybe you discover that there aren't any grants that are "just right" for your project. Maybe you start cobbling together a "Partialbright," as one article called it. The author found a way to guest teach at a Ugandan university and then conducted his fieldwork from there. Thinking that I might not receive the Fulbright after all, I scheduled my summer research trip to Ireland and the UK. (It got me through those cold, dark nights of waiting for the IIE to return my calls.) My "Partialbright" meant securing small amounts of grant funding and staying in the cheapest hostels available. One of the prospective questions on my Fulbright interview prep document was "If you don't receive the Fulbright, what will you do?" If your answer isn't "find a way to go anyway" and you haven't thought long and hard about how you're going to make that happen, you're doing it wrong. You need to feel strongly enough about your project that you'd be willing to sleep on a bedbug-infested mattress across from a college student who's just vomited on the shag carpeting for the fifth time that night. #hostellife

4. Go Above and Beyond.
I mentioned in my last Fulbright post that I had a 30+ page prospective Q&A document that I'd prepped in advance of my US-UK Committee interview. This document featured questions ranging from "Why not complete your research in the US?" to "What is the perception of the UK in the US?" to "How did you prepare for your Fulbright interview?" (Answer: I Googled every blog post ever written about the Fulbright Student/ETA/Scholar/DAT interview and compiled a list of every question that I could possibly find. Then I spent an entire week thinking of potential answers and vetted them in two mock interviews with friends/family members.) After every interview, if there was a question that I hadn't been able to answer completely, I conducted any additional necessary research and then emailed the committee with a more comprehensive answer. When they told me that finding a host university might be difficult for my project, I researched every single university on their partner list and wrote paragraphs about how I could conduct my research at any one of them.

(Even though I ended up with a placement that's on the opposite side of the country from where I need to be, I don't regret this approach at all. I talked to a former Fulbrighter last week who told me that the host universities are VERY carefully selected. She asked if the University of Glasgow had a strong theatre department and when I answered that it did, she said: "Well, there you go. They probably thought that it was most important to match you with a theatre department that was going to be passionate about your work, instead of a traditional education department." As I wrote before, it's all about having a strong match with your funder!)

I even picked out some universities that I thought would be an especially strong fit and downloaded books/articles written by some of their resident professors. I spent hours scouring their latest research, so that I could comment intelligently on why we would work well together.

As the Girl Scouts always say: "Be prepared." Do your due diligence. Write your follow-ups. Show them how deeply you care about getting this grant. The more you emphasize how much this means to you (through that extra work that you do), the more they'll know that you're a self-starter who will get things done. The more they'll see your passion firsthand and know that you'll follow through on your inquiry project from start-to-finish. The more they'll like you -- and remember, organizations like the Fulbright don't fund projects as much as they fund people.

5. It's Not You; It's Them.
This year, I wrote the best grant proposal of my life for Fund for Teachers. There was a thorough literature review, fully-detailed implementation plans, and accountability metrics. When I clicked the submit button, I felt like I'd hit a home run. I didn't think about the grant again until the notification deadline on April 15. Even then, all I felt was a sense of certainty. I'd read the sample applications and mine knocked all of those out of the park. There was no way that they were going to reject my funding request.

Until they did.

Sometimes, you have to accept that it's not you; it's them. My grant really WAS well-written (and, in fact, was shortlisted by another prestigious funding organization). However, there are sometimes political and logistical complications of which we aren't aware. For instance, I'd emailed Fund for Teachers and asked them if because my school wasn't in their official network, I'd still be a competitive applicant. They assured me that I would -- but I think being out-of-network definitely hurt my chances. I got the feeling that they allocated all of their funds to network educators first and then, if there was anything left over, the out-of-network educators would be considered. Even if you do your due diligence, even if you write that perfect grant application, there's still a chance that you're going to be rejected.

And that's okay.

Because you only need 3%. So keep applying, no matter what happens, and remember that every one of your 97% rejections are just getting you closer to the 3% acceptances. And that 3%? That's what really matters.

Day Eleven (31 Days of Trip Planning): Finally contacted the National Youth Theatre and the National Youth Music Theatre. I've been putting it off because . . . I'm kind of afraid that they won't respond to me. They're the organizations that I've modeled my entire life around, and having the chance to observe them in action would mean the world to me. But sometimes, you just need to grit your teeth and put yourself out there. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

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