Grants to the Rescue

By Nicole Keller


Think of grant money for service-learning projects as buried treasure: It’s out there; you just need the map and a methodical approach before you dig.


“There are tons of grant opportunities from the national, state and local perspectives; teachers just need to know where to look,” said Michele Sullivan, FFA Living to Serve team leader, who writes, secures and administers federal grant money for FFA chapters.


Before looking for funds, your students should clearly identify the project’s intended impact, Sullivan said. “Identifying the needs in your community, framing out what the project will look like and what you want to do, how much it will cost and exactly what you need to make the project successful will help you to identify grant sources and partners,” Sullivan said.


But be careful that your project description doesn’t limit your thinking to just agriculture groups. “For example, maybe you really want to do a recycling program,” Sullivan said. “Yes, certainly, partner with the local recycling companies, but you can also find funds for bins or scales from other funding sources by just looking around where you are, because everyone is interested in saving the environment.”


Be sure to make the following stops in your search for grant-money gold:


FFA, the Living to Serve program 
Funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Institute for Food and Agriculture, Living to Serve is a grant FFA has already received for rural communities, those with 10,000 or fewer residents. The FFA’s Living to Serve team awards grants to chapters and has a website that includes funding opportunities, timelines, sample applications, lesson plans and also resources for other types of grants. Sullivan says most of the money has been awarded for this school year but that some funds will be released in November and December. Be aware that federal grants like Living to Serve cannot be used to create permanent structures; for those, you’ll need to pair federal funds with other sources.


Youth Service America
Youth Service America, of which the FFA is a partner, provides one of the best compilations of national service-learning grants, Sullivan said, and it’s updated monthly. Much of the $1 million awarded goes toward the group’s Global Youth Day of Service and involves companies such as Disney and State Farm.


Learn and Serve America
Every state receives funds from the U.S. Department of Education for service-learning grants; those funds are distributed through a program of the Corporation for National and Community Service ( called Learn and Serve America. This site lists grant opportunities, but Sullivan says the best way to apply is to contact the program officer through your state’s education agency.


State Farm Youth Advisory Board
State Farm participates in Youth Service America but also has a 30-member student advisory board that awards $5 million annually. Themes change yearly; recent themes included driver safety, disaster preparedness and environmental responsibility. The next grant applications will be accepted in spring 2011.


Nearly every major corporation gives back to the community at the national, state or local level, sometimes at all three. “Every local Target and Wal-Mart store, every Kohls and Macys, each individual store has funds for service: All you have to do is go and ask for the application,” Sullivan said. She recommends asking early, in November and December for the next school year, when they’re working on budgets for January. And corporate grants can be less restrictive than federal grants, so you can pair them to achieve your goals.


Foundations and Community Groups
Nearly every education foundation, Sullivan says, provides grants; start with your local chamber of commerce or community foundation. “Then ask every store, every adult philanthropic group like Kiwanis or Rotary and have your students ask their parents what groups they belong to,” Sullivan said. “Students can go and make a presentation to ask for funds as part of their learning and leadership development.”


State and Local Governments
Besides Learn and Serve America funds, state agriculture departments may have other grant programs to award, so check with your department’s representative for service-learning, and with county and city governments, too.


Grant Search Suggestions

Share the load. For a high-quality service-learning project, include your students in the search for grant money, too. “I really encourage teachers to designate a student, once a week, to spend five minutes going online and checking out new grant opportunities,” said Michele Sullivan, FFA Living to Serve team leader and grant administrator. “They’re tech savvy, so engage them in the research as well.”


Have no fear. Don’t be afraid to ask for grants. “If you don’t ask, you don’t know,” Sullivan said. “It can be intimidating if they just tell you no but so what if they do? At least you have an answer. Knowledge is power, so just move on from there.”


Send in the students. It’s easier to tell an adult ‘no’ than it is a child. “I highly recommend sending students,” Sullivan said. “Students have the leadership set and it gets the kids an opportunity to put it into action by making “the ask” as well as planning the project.”