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Conferees learn tips for grant writing

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BILLINGS, Mont. ? American Indian tribes and tribal educators are well positioned to win more grants, but the application process must be refined as competition increases, a leading grant-writing consultant says.

"It's no big deal to look classy anymore," Carol Ann Prater told tribal education leaders attending the recent School to Work Career Institute 2002 conference here. "It's easy to jazz up your applications," primarily because of the ready availability of so many high-quality computer software programs.

But that doesn't mean grant-seekers should rely on flash to get their funding requests filled. In fact, it's just the opposite, Prater said. What ultimately wins grants is solid research, a clear and concise presentation of the facts and something that emotionally and intellectually ties a potential funder to your cause.

"You've got to have curb appeal," she explained. "First impressions are lasting impressions. First impressions matter, guys. They matter. How about some spirit in there? Applications need heart, not just cold, hard facts."

To start, successful grant writers must overcome five common "barriers to asking," said Prater, a national-level consultant and author who also teaches in the Burlingame, Calif. school system. They are:

Ignorance about what funding is available and exactly what is needed by the granting organization. "Don't ask a naked man for the shirt off his back," she said, adding that too many grant applicants don't pay enough attention to foundation protocol, which often means the difference between getting funded or not.

Limited and inaccurate beliefs about the "asking" organization and the potential funder.

Fear of rejection and feelings of powerlessness.

Low self-esteem, which afflicts institutions as well as individuals. "Schools are the worst," Prater said. "Public education just sits on its hands and lets itself get battered. We're lousy at it. We as an organization have an absolutely rotten self-esteem."

Pride, which can make it difficult to "admit we need anyone or anything."

Grant-writing is hard work, she said, but once a basic formula is learned, asking for $10,000 or $1 million largely becomes the same ? and the devil is in the details.

Many novice grant writers tend to make broad assumptions while filling out funding applications, Prater said, and a major mistake is assuming the benefactor knows something about them and their project. That's why it's crucially important for applicants to be descriptive in their narratives, but also to not overburden grant readers with useless minutia.

"You have to know who you are," she told her workshop audience. "Grant writing requires being proactive, not reactive. Proposals that win have to be both systemic and systematic."

Another key component to successful grant writing, Prater said, is not overstating your cause. While your school or project may indeed be on the ropes financially, it will do no good to wallow in desperation. Instead, make it a point to list every conceivable asset, including volunteers and other in-kind assistance.

"You don't want to be whiners," she said. "Whiners never win. You can't just say, 'If you don't fund us, we'll jump off the bridge on Monday.' Don't ever go into a proposal and say, 'We have nothing to contribute.' If you whine, I'm going to think you won't know what to do with the money if I give it to you."

According to Prater, three key elements to highlight in an application are vision, community values and history. Applicants also need to "assess the present," she said, and successfully depict "what is" versus "what should be." The discrepancy between the present situation and what you are striving for should be the epicenter of the funding request.

Funders want to know "Who the heck are you and what are you going to?" she said. The easier applicants make it to ascertain this information, the better the chances of being advanced to a foundation's final round of decision-making.

"Be specific, even if you have to do what I call a WAG, a wild-ass guess," Prater said. "You can't say once the money comes, 'We'll figure it out now.' The more specifics you give in the timeline, the better, even though you're making a WAG."