I started my professional career in the lowest-circulating branch of the Dallas Public Library, a small library in a geographically isolated low-income community. I realized almost immediately that to bring more people into the library, I’d have to go outside the library. How to do that? I applied for a grant from the Texas State Library through what was then the Library Services and Construction Act, or LSCA. We received a $64.000 LSCA grant to promote our small branch library in the community. Among other things, it provided us with funds to make a professional outreach video filmed in the library that was taken out and shown to kids in schools and adults in agencies throughout the community. As a result of the grant we were able to demonstrate a significant increase in gate count and circulation.
What I learned from writing and then implementing that first grant made it possible for many more successful grants over the years, which in turn made a lot of things possible for my libraries that wouldn’t have been doable otherwise. So what are some of the tips to write a successful grant proposal?
- Quantify your objectives. This is such a simple rule and so easy to do. I’m stunned when I’m on the other side of the equation, reviewing grant proposals, how many people still forget this. So I repeat: Quantify your objectives. The grant in Dallas was successful because we didn’t just say, “we want more people to come into the library because we’re, like, not very busy.” Instead we said that we wanted to see gate count increase by a certain percentage over a specific time period. We didn’t say, “we’re going to make a video and maybe then we’ll show it to some people.” We presented a plan with a goal as to how many kids would see the video. Tip: Always make your goals realistic, and lower than what you think you can do. You’ll automatically exceed your QUANTIFIABLE goals, and look really good to your funder.
- Find out what the community needs, not what you THINK they need. Despite the Steve Jobs maxim that people don’t know what they want until you show it to them, the truth is that when a grant asks you to demonstrate need, you should be able to back up your statements with facts and research. You can’t just base your need on anecdotal evidence—“we think that there’s a need in our community for more Coast Guard test books, because we think that maybe some people around here have boats, and if we buy some, maybe our circulation will go up.” You have to be able to say, as we did in Dallas: “Here’s the number of people in the community, and here’s the number of people coming into our library coming into our library on a monthly basis. That’s a very small percentage, right? So we’ve got to get out into the community to find out what it would take to get them to come.”
- Use local resources. In Dallas we hired someone who had grown up in the community and knew it well as a grant coordinator. He was the key to getting us connected with groups and people that we might otherwise never have known. He also knew all the neighborhoods—the good, the bad and the seedy. I’ll never forget the driving tour we took with the grant administrator from the state library when she came for a site visit, and her reaction when the grant coordinator took the time to point out the crack houses, and other sites of similar interest. The point here is really to get buy in from local groups. Talk with them as you work on your proposal. Get their support, both verbally and in writing. Form partnerships. Ask yourself how can the grant provide both benefit to the library and to community partners?
- Don’t promise anything you can’t deliver. Many times, grant funding is used to create library services that you hope will draw more people to the library. Let’s say you want to attract the Latino community, and order more Spanish books. The time to promote your wonderful Spanish-language collection to the community is not when you’re out trying to get a grant to buy the collection. It should seem obvious that the time to promote is after you can deliver, when the collection is actually in the library. Often times this step is part of the evaluation piece of a grant proposal, so you need to make sure that you have the timing right. In Dallas, we had to work out the timing for producing our video, and then scheduling massive numbers of school visits and other programs where we could show the video. The video featured kids from the local arts magnet high school, who even wrote an original rap which they performed over the closing credits. The video was filmed in the library, so everything we were promoting was already there.
Grant writing can be very rewarding. It’s especially rewarding if you actually get the grant. But what is most rewarding is the difference you are able to make through what the grant money makes possible for you. Good luck!
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