Sowing the Seeds of Grant Writing

The best ideas for grant proposals emerge from conversations. I have been teaching at College of Menominee Nation (CMN) for over 16 years, and in that time an untold number of people inspired the projects that shaped the trajectory of my career. During my first semester on campus, a Menominee tribal legislator asked if we could stage Native theater productions, and when we did so a year later, we were approached by the Oneida Nation Arts Program asking if we could partner on the next show. A request for book recommendations for all ages led to a National Endowment for the Humanities grant that funded a multiyear community reading initiative, while a suggestion that CMN students write their own plays led to a project that toured original plays to each of the four tribal communities closest to our campuses. In the past seven years, I have written over a dozen grants to help fulfill elders’ requests to revive traditional Menominee theater pageants—an endeavor that has yielded many of the most meaningful moments and relationships I have had in my professional career. The upshot is that the best grant proposals I have written were sown from the seeds of community conversations.

I am often asked how to begin planning a successful grant proposal and my standard answer is to think of what your community needs now. The best way for students and staff at a tribal college or university (TCU) to uncover ideas is to talk with tribal elders about what change they would like to see. Of course, grant writers will likely recognize an untold number of ideas that arise in any given conversation, but each grant writer needs to identify which of the issues brought to the forefront can begin to be corrected through drafting a grant proposal—never mind the fact that one may or may not have a grant or even a funder in mind for the project.

Every successful grant proposal must prove three things: First, show that the project you are advancing needs to be undertaken. You must identify an issue that needs to be remedied and then you propose a revolutionary solution for whatever is ailing. Second, establish that now is the time to address the imperfection you are highlighting. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. referred to necessity as “the fierce urgency of now.” Explaining why your project fits into this category will help sway potential funders. Finally, you must explain that you are working with the people or entities that can accomplish what needs to be done. You have to illuminate why your project is the one your community has been waiting for. Done successfully, the connections you’ve made amongst the need, solution, and grant facilitators will be unassailable.

I believe that every successful grant is rooted in research and the application of knowledge. Yet, I am not necessarily talking about research drawn from secondary sources, publications, or case studies. To be clear, those resources can be inspiring and worthy of consideration. But the more one works on projects within Native communities, the more one realizes that the key to any endeavor lies within the traditional teachings practiced by the tribe. Simply put, if the project does not affirm the wisdom held by those teachings, then it needs to be reconsidered—if a project upholds those ideals then the seeds are ready to be sown.

When I began each of the projects, I mentioned on behalf of CMN that I looked to the value statement of the Menominee tribe. It reads, “As Omāēqnomenēwak (People of the Wild Rice), we value our children, elders, and each other, preserving our language, tradition, history, and culture.” While I learn more about the depth of the worldview held within this sentence every semester, I do the best I can to ensure that each of the projects I propose aligns with that value statement. I also ask questions of the tribe’s culture keepers, and, most of all, I listen to their feedback. I am always grateful for each of my patient community teachers, and I know that any project I consider is made better due to the time I’ve spend in their company.

Once you have done the work of defining a project and ensuring it best serves the community, you can begin to look in earnest for funders, starting with a search of those listed on I always advise dreaming big first, but seeking smaller grants whenever necessary. It is often better to fund part of a great project rather than none of it at all. Still, one should only pursue grants that allow you to fulfill your project in ways that do not compromise the values of the community you serve. If the grantors require you to change your scope in ways that are detrimental or would defy cultural norms, find a different funder whose support you can report to the people whose conversations seeded your idea. After all, the best ideas come from conversations, and you will likely need the encouraging voices who inspired your project to sustain you once the actual grant implementation begins.

Ryan Winn teaches in the Liberal Studies Department at College of Menominee Nation.

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the Writer’s Corner or any other opinion columns published by the Tribal College Journal (TCJ) do not necessarily reflect the opinions of TCJ or the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.

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