Can’t find a grant that will fully fund your STEM program? Never fear! While large-scale funding operations may be able to provide bigger grants, they also usually require bigger grant proposals, bigger post-grant reporting and a bigger team of grant writers. Instead, look for help among the people who know your students best — your local community.
With a bit of creativity, community involvement and a passion to provide your students with the best STEM program ever, you’ll have your money, materials and mentors in no time.
There are 3 key principles for seeking out-of-the-box STEM funding:
1. Build relationships and work to maintain them.
The first step to finding people who want to support your program is to build positive relationships. Talk to the employees at your regular grocery store, have a conversation with the bank teller and ask your students’ parents about what they do. All of these little conversations contribute to a network of potential classroom supporters.
Not sure where to start?
- Get involved with places that you or your students’ families frequent. This could be a local bank or credit union, a grocery store or even a nail salon. Wendy, an educator from Nevada, once had a local nail salon pay for her class to go on field trips. Why? Because parents would go to the nail salon and tell them about their kids and classroom needs. Think about the businesses that care about the community and want your students to flourish.
- Talk to local branches of big businesses and see what they can do. While many corporations offer a formalized grant process, local entities may be able to provide additional resources. Walmart and Home Depot branches can sometimes donate supplies or materials for a class project. Target has been known to offer mini-grants, and Starbucks may be able to donate t-shirts, gift card prizes or other event swag.
- Do some research to find local professional groups related to STEM. Groups like the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and the Technology Services Industry Association (TSIA) exist all over the world and often like to invest in STEM programs related to their field. Someone from one of these groups may be able to teach a lesson, become a STEM mentor, offer a company site tour or contribute in some other one-of-a-kind way.
- Reach out to local community groups. International service organizations like Kiwanis, Rotary International, Key Club, Lions Clubs International and countless others are bound to exist in your region. Plus, there may be some more localized service groups looking for opportunities to serve. These groups could volunteer time, help raise funds or seek out material donations.
- Get to know your local education organizations. Many school districts in the United States have an education foundation that accepts donations or raises money for projects within their schools. Use our state-by-state funding lists to learn if you have a foundation and how they distribute funds. Also, talk to your parent-teacher organization (PTO) and local libraries to see what resources they can provide. These groups may not have cash for you, but they will often have other valuable things to offer like subscriptions to grant databases, technology rentals or knowledge about free opportunities in your area.
Once you’ve started to establish these relationships, remember to maintain and appreciate them with a long-term perspective. Someone may not be able to contribute the first time you ask, but if you keep the conversation going, they might be able to help in the future. You could be the first to know when they have something to offer. Whenever someone does contribute, make sure to write a heartfelt thank you, letting them know what a difference they made for your learners. Send a photo of your students to help the donor see the smiles they made possible.
2. It’s not all about cold, hard cash.
You know what they say: “Money doesn’t grow on trees.” It’s true for you and it’s true for your donors. Plus, giving money is often more complicated due to rules regulating donation channels and the common requirements for 501(c)(3) non-profit status. There are many other contributions that you can seek out to make your STEM programs flourish.
Materials: Someone may not have money to donate, but they could give you some inventory. Talk to the local hardware store about donating materials for your STEM birdhouse project. Ask a pizza joint if you could have some unused pizza boxes to construct solar ovens. See if a local business can donate used computers when they upgrade to a newer model. Think about what types of materials you need to implement your STEM program, then seek out the people who sell those things. You never know what someone is willing to contribute until you ask.
Volunteers: Many companies want to make a positive impact on their community. One way to do this is to encourage volunteer hours in their workforce. If you need someone to set up a STEM night, chaperone a field trip, supervise groups in a STEM scavenger hunt or teach a lesson about a real-life STEM topic, ask local businesses who care about STEM education or have employees connected to your students.
Mentors: One more involved way to bring volunteers into your program is through mentorship. Mentors are volunteers who help out consistently, often working with the same small group of students. Shawn, an educator in Texas, once had the director of a local organization volunteer as a mentor in his robotics club. At first, the organization did not want to provide financial support, but after the director had been working with students for a few months, the money suddenly came! Getting more individuals excited about your program can spread the word and multiply your support.
Site Visits: Another way local businesses can contribute is to offer a free site visit. If you know of a nearby company that applies STEM topics or relates to something your class is learning, see if they would welcome you in for a few hours to see the facility and share how STEM is tied into their job. This could be anything from a big-name tech company to a neighborhood grocery store. Whether it's as simple as money math or as complicated as robotic manufacturing, nearly every industry uses some aspect of STEM.
3. You are special. Get the word out!
You know that your students are special, and you have big dreams about the STEM experiences that could help them discover a passion for science, engineering or another much-needed field. Often times, other people do not realize how much your students are learning or what they are capable of. Sharing your successes can inspire someone to become a contributor. There are a variety of ways you can show stakeholders your work and share the needs you are trying to fill.
Invite People Into Your World. Bring potential contributors into your classroom, library, camp or program and let the kids do the talking. Ask kids to demonstrate what they’ve been learning and show people what they’ve created. It’s one thing to tell someone that your third graders have coded a game with Scratch and another thing entirely to let them play it. Bringing people into your world allows them to see your needs for themselves and gives them a tangible space to see their donations come to life.
Utilize Social Media. Social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram allow you to expand your network across the world. Create a space online where you can share the things your students are building. Show parents how much their children have learned. Don’t be afraid to ask for help — someone in your network might just have what you need.
Embrace Crowdsourcing. GoFundMe has been allowing people to fundraise for free online for about 10 years. This idea of online fundraising has taken off in education on this site and others, including Donors Choose, Adopt a Classroom, Mighty Cause and more. These platforms make it easy to accept small donations from a wide base of people, reaching your goals without always needing one big contributor. In 2019, a movement called “Clear the List” took off on Twitter. Educators shared their classroom wish lists on Amazon and thousands of individuals bought items to ensure teachers did not need to spend personal money on school supplies or class projects. This successful online movement shows the power of social media and crowdsourced funding.
Write Your Rep. Every state has representatives in Congress who advocate for their citizens. If you have a program that is doing good for students, your representatives may be able to help you find funding. Shawn from Texas once invited a state representative into his after-school program that needed help finding consistent funding. The representative was so impressed by the impact Shawn’s program was having on the students involved that he created a line item to fund the program. This means that the annual funding will be consistent every year until an amended law is passed.
Talk to Strangers. When you’re on a flight or taking an Uber, do you talk to the person next to you? You never know who they are or who they’re connected to. Have a conversation with the people you encounter by chance and share your passion for giving your students the best STEM education possible. You never know who you’ll encounter!
Pick Up the Phone
Hopefully, these three principles will guide your search for out-of-the-box funding. Step one is to just pick up the phone. You have a whole lot to gain and almost nothing to lose when you ask for help funding your learners’ education. Have your goal prepared and ask how organizations or individuals can help you get there. If you also want to explore grant opportunities, check out the blog STEM Funding Resources Nationwide, your go-to guide to national grant opportunities.
Remember that you can always call or email our STEAM Team to point you in the right direction. Reach them at (800) 429-3110 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
To learn about all things STEM funding, join us in the September webinar, A Roadmap to Successful STEM Grant Writing. Experts from government, business and the classroom will share their top tips for educators who want resources for their funding search. Register for free at https://edventures.com/blogs/upcoming-webinars/a-roadmap-to-successful-stem-grant-writing