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Developing Grant-Funded Programming

Before applying for a grant, it’s critical for an institution to have reasonable certainty that they’ll be able to execute their proposed ideas. 

With financial realities hitting higher ed especially hard during the pandemic, institutions have been looking to federal and grant funding to finance the programming their learners need to get back into the workforce. In this interview, John LaBrie discusses the importance of launching workforce-focused programming, how to get funding, and what to expect when entering the grant funding environment. 

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is grant funding so important to developing, launching, and managing workforce-oriented and programs?

John LaBrie (JLB): The very nature of workforce development implies that you are working with unemployed and underemployed individuals. So, there really isn’t a business model out there that can be driven by traditional market forces. These are individuals who often are financially disadvantaged and can’t afford the tuition rate. In this case, grant funding becomes a very important place for government to step in and fund third-party organizations’ workforce development training. And it’s almost always government, although there are the occasional foundations that participate.  So, grant funding becomes the major source of funding in that space. 

Evo: Is there a difference in how the institution needs to approach the application process to access federal grants versus funds developed by regional workforce boards?  

JLB: The more regionalized you become, the more you want to develop a personal relationship with your local workforce development board. Almost every community across North America has one, and they network with local municipalities and officials in the U.S.  at counties to really develop strategies for the local market.

Although personal relationships are always important, the further out you get at the state level or the provincial level, and then to the federal government, the more the concept that you are putting on the table in the application process becomes important, as does your credibility as an applicant. Different regions have different strategies. If you want to do something on the local level with your local workforce development board, set up an appointment and go talk to them; find out what they need, where their resources are coming from, and how you could jointly participate in developing a strategy.

Keep in mind that workforce development boards often go after the same grant dollars. Start with your local workforce development board and build that relationship if you are brand new to this space.

Evo: What are some of the best practices to access a grant funding?

JLB: Grant funding in general is idea- and aspiration-driven. Most grants that I’ve seen over the last ten years, at least in the United States, speak to aspirations. The first grant we were recently given was an Apprenticeships Workforce Development Grant to set up apprenticeships and scale them. The reason why the federal government was interested in scaling is they really wanted to broaden the impact of the individuals participating in apprenticeships—something that usually happened in a more transactional person-to-person fashion. 

Being innovative in your idea creation and true to the mission of your own institution as well as to the spirit of the grant—and finding the marriage between those elements—is really key to understanding how to tap into grant funding. Not all grants are aspirational, but by reading the RFP, you can usually tell whether they’re looking for brand new ideas. And candidly, those are the grants that I tend to be most interested in. They provide much more creativity and flexibility in their execution.

Evo: Is there a risk in applying for a grant with a new concept and not being able to execute it the way it was initially envisioned?

JLB: Absolutely. You need to have reasonable certainty that you can actually accomplish what you are proposing. You can’t be so aspirational that you can’t envision actually getting it done. Many grants fail. People have good intentions and get funding for a particular project, then attempt to put the project together and it just doesn’t work. In some respect, that is why government, especially the federal government, is a good risk-taker—because if an endeavor fails, you fail with the federal government as your backer. So, the financial risks for the organization are minimized. 

For example, we received our first Department of Labor grant pre-COVID-19. The arrival dramatically changed how we were doing business. Even though we had a project plan on file with the federal government, we revised it and said, “Life is happening over here, and our new project plan with the new information that we have acquired in year two really mandates that we do this differently. Here is what we are proposing.” Most grant funding allows a fair amount of back and forth between the funder and the grantee to execute the spirit of the grant. So, I’ve seen grants change quite dramatically from the original concept in to actual execution over time.

Evo: How do you find grants for which you are either eligible or potentially eligible?

JLB: First of all, the big grants always make a lot of news, and the little grants don’t. We’ve received a number of little grants along the way as well. For example, there is a local family foundation here in New England that funds schools and colleges, and at the beginning of the pandemic, we received $25,000 to develop faculty training around remote learning for our undergraduate faculty.

Those little grants are not transformative, but they are very important to go after because they allow you to develop the skills to talk about what you plan on doing in language that all funders understand. So, there is really no secret sauce. Like with everything else, success is built upon success, and those initial successes are often built on failures. You need to go out and try new things and learn some lessons along the way. Find some things that are within your bailiwick, go after them, and be ready to accept a rejection letter, or two, or three, or four. 

The grants all come with request for proposals, even those from private foundations, so you want to find the marriage between what they want and what you want.

Evo: What are the challenges that schools can expect to face, especially ones relatively new to the grant environment?

JLB: Starting with internal challenges, grants are often about building capacity in one form or another. Frequently, what is envisioned in a grant is that you will be given some form of startup funding to create a new program that will find life beyond that initial iteration. So, the first internal challenge requires asking a fundamental question: “When the grant funding goes out, what are we going to do with it? What good is this infrastructure if we don’t plan on perpetuating it into the future?”

That is where you need to have a lot of really hearty conversations upfront with some internal advocates that you want to court to your side. Then there’s everything behind the grant—how to deal with overhead, accounting, and staffing. How do you fit within your university? What contributions are your university comfortable with? Those internal challenges tend to be pretty substantial and consequential. 

External challenges are just like everything else in our market-facing world—competition. If you bring external partners into a grant, which is very common, keeping them in line and happy tends to be a full-time job. You need to learn how to do that. Just to give you a sense of scale: the $12 million grant we got from the Department of Labor has almost 32 different partners collaborating, all of whom are governed by different MOUs, letters of agreement, or terms of agreement. Keeping tabs on everyone is difficult, but if you can leverage 32 partners, then you can really go after those big grants because the work is distributed.

The biggest mistake that most people make is thinking that they have to create everything from scratch. And you see this a lot, especially at smaller institutions who struggle with different teaching methodologies or technology, especially new innovations around student enrollment. But bringing in a partner is a perfectly valid way of executing a grant. Developing an understanding of those organizations is really important.

Evo: From your experience, what are some of the lessons or best practices that leaders looking to access more grant support need to onboard?

JLB: I always come back to this primary principle of consistency with your mission. If it’s not consistent, everybody will scratch their head and question what you’re doing, which is never a good thing. Beyond that, you go into some of the things we have already touched upon like understanding the market in which you are working. Networking and making sure that you are creative, aspirational, and bold are also important. The bigger the dollars, the bigger the idea. 


This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

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