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Getting Smart About Writing Grant Proposals

If you're looking for a quick and dirty way to win millions in grant funding, you're reading the wrong article. Proposal writing takes substantial time and effort. Funding, even for the best-laid plans, does not always materialize as a result. Though fully aware of this dilemma, many in our world continue to dream up programs, craft plans, and develop proposals. What's wrong with us? Not a thing; we know that effective planning provides the backbone for the most effective proposals and that the process of crafting such plans opens the door for strengthening existing organizations and building valuable partnerships—with or without additional funding.

Developing effective, sensible funding proposals depends on clearly understanding the characteristics of our organizations and their intentions for action. Describing each category of endeavor explicitly requires us to articulate our organizational strengths in communication, planning, and program development. An inventory of such assets naturally points to the areas in which we need further work or development. The very process of planning and writing a proposal, therefore, benefits our organizations and partnerships.

. . . the process of crafting [. . . ] plans opens the door for strengthening existing organizations and building valuable partnerships. . .

That’s not to say that a proposal should simply fund a system already in place. After all, if nothing changes, nothing changes. Strategic planning ensures that we make best use of the resources—human and financial—in order to make changes that maximize our effectiveness. We position our team to make the most of grant funds, once awarded, as well as build consensus around achievable goals with or without funding.

Assumptions Inherent in the TAH Program

Like most grants in education, Teaching American History (TAH) grants seek to improve student achievement. The request for TAH proposals states

The Teaching American History Grant Program supports projects that aim to raise student achievement by improving teachers' knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of traditional American history. Grant awards assist local educational agencies (LEAs), in partnership with entities that have extensive content expertise, to develop, implement, document, evaluate, and disseminate innovative, cohesive models of professional development. By helping teachers to develop a deeper understanding and appreciation of traditional American history as a separate subject within the core curriculum, these programs are intended to improve instruction and raise student achievement.

The federal Department of Education essentially lays out their theory of change in this statement of purpose.

Increase teachers' knowledge with help from content folks to improve instruction and raise student achievement. The evaluation criterion follows this logic with requirements to measure teacher content knowledge and student learning.

While the feds provide this basic logic model, most in the field hold additional assumptions about getting from point A to point B. These assumptions guide program design, connecting activities to outcomes. It's no wonder that some of the least convincing proposals are those that simply parrot back the skeleton outline the funder outlines in an RFP.

. . . some of the least convincing proposals are those that simply parrot back the skeleton outline the funder outlines in an RFP.
Get—and Stay—Involved

This first phase of proposal planning requires a great deal more talking than writing. A collaborative planning process—including teachers and administrators from the local educational agency; representatives from the university, museum, library, or other organization in your partnership; and, ideally, your evaluator—defines objectives and designs a program's nuts and bolts.

Coherent programs seldom result from an isolated proposal writer because they simply cannot know your organizations they way you do. Even if an externally-created document presents a compelling case, it's the program staff of the partnership and the teachers they serve that have to live with the program design.

Creating a funding proposal that make sense both in writing and practice requires that we look deep inside each organization in the partnership. Sustainability means funding a system, not merely a model program that will go away when the funding dries up. With this in mind, we create opportunities to identify, challenge, and develop potential leaders within our organizations.

Coherent programs seldom result from an isolated proposal writer. . .

Is this kind of planning and proposal writing a lot of work? You bet. Communicating and planning intentionally have big payoffs, however. Certainly, proposals that result from the isolated endeavor of one individual who offers grant-writing services, or even one person within your organization with a pipedream and a way with words, do get funded.

The organically grown proposal, however, has major advantages. The process provides significant opportunities for partners to engage in the real and important work of planning. In addition to a program that is truly responsive to local needs and conditions, collaborative planning develops the partnership, an important precursor to developing teachers.