With apologies to Jane Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a foundation in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a grantee. 

In an age of decreasing budgets and line item reductions, the institutional expenditures of seminaries and theological schools are stripped to the bare essentials and bound up largely in two categories: the operational costs of our buildings, on the one hand, and paying our faculty and staff, on the other. So what does a cash-strapped institution do? (1) Defer maintenance. (2) Avoid hiring new heads; instead add hats to existing heads. If you spend a quarter or more of your board meetings talking about cash flow, you’re probably one of those cash-strapped institutions. 


You probably already know that foundations and other granting agencies almost never fund operational expenses, deferred maintenance, or the salaries of existing employees. So, rather than apply for new grants to pay for new programs, which will require still more hats for your existing personnel,  perhaps your strategy has been to invest administrative time on raising enrollment and seeking private philanthropy.


But hold that thought! Maybe, just maybe, it’s possible to make some expenses that you always thought were impossible to fund through grants fundable instead. Maybe it’s possible to work relationally — even strategically — with a granting agency.


Making nonfundable things fundable

Consider this hypothetical: A board is made aware of significant needs in the area of technological infrastructure. While boards are not involved in the details of day-to-day operations, they should be monitoring cash flow, and they probably see cash flowing out the door as drainage from the bottom line, even if they also see it is a strategic investment in maintaining a current or future good. 


Now imagine some improvement is needed — like a new network server, new computers in the lab, or an increase in bandwidth to support students who are always streaming data. These improvements would normally come out of the operating budget because no foundation is going to support computers or bandwidth. 


One way to find foundation support for this project would be to include it as a part of a bigger project — one that involves an expansion of programs or services. A broken network might be paired with an institutional goal for mission advancement in Africa or Asia. Then a single grant proposal might be written to support strategic partnerships with African or Asian seminaries through the delivery of massive open online courses that can be developed in collaboration with overseas partners. Included in the proposal: A new server and more bandwidth.


There’s no reason that the whole board needs to devote its time to proposals like this, but it might be appropriate for the chair to appoint one or two board members to work with key administrators to identify clustered needs and address them creatively. The goal of this task force might be to increase the scope of projects, folding smaller nonfundable projects into larger fundable ones. 


Depending on the restrictions of the granting agency, the nonfundable could become fundable. If you use grant funding for a significant upgrade of your computer systems (for example), you may not need to do further upgrades for several years. But be careful: Are you prepared for what happens when the grant funds run out? This question underscores the importance of sustainability planning, a critical board function. Institutions that rely on grant funding must have a plan in place for when the grant period ends, and such planning should include ways to cover costs that were formerly covered by grant funding. 


Our usual sources

What foundations are likely to support you? First, find out which granting agencies are supporting your peers. A series of Google searches on phrases like “foundation awarded seminary grant” will immediately bring up articles about current foundation-supported initiatives at your peer institutions. To get better results, replace “seminary” in the search string above with the names of your closest peer institutions.


Next, be aware that there are some “usual suspects.” For example, Porticus North America welcomes letters of intent from Catholic organizations that are seeking to fund activities like strategic planning, leadership development, and board training. The Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning funds projects concerning the research and study of pedagogical issues. And the Luce Fund for Theological Education, a new competitive grant program of the Henry Luce Foundation, supports new models of teaching and learning, educational program design, leadership development, and research. 


Basic strategies 


Before you start applying, it’s important to have done your homework.


Identify your audience. Think about which communities you are trying to reach with your request for support. What are their needs? Which foundations are interested in this community? 


Study the types of available grants. Some foundations, like the Henry Luce Foundation, have competitive grant programs that are open to all comers. Some, like Porticus North America, only invite proposals from organizations that have previously submitted letters of inquiry. Some, like Wabash, have “small” and “large” grants with different requirements for each—at Wabash, small project grants can be approved any time during the year, while large grants are only approved twice per year. 


Understand what is funded. If you’re going to cluster your project, you must understand what a funding agency will or will not support. For example, if you find a foundation that won’t pay for books but will pay for collaborative online learning ventures, you may be able to set up a program of online teaching and learning with two or three peer institutions. How are you going to report on what you learned during the collaboration? You’ll send a report to your funder, but perhaps you’ll decide that a book is the best way to get the word out to a larger audience. The grant may not support the publication, but it did support the research and collaboration. 


Understand what is not funded.A grant creates a relationship between the granting agency and the institution that receives funds. As in any relationship, it’s best to know your partner’s boundaries. Does the foundation never accept unsolicited proposals? Does it specifically prohibit certain things like bricks-and-mortar projects? Know before you ask; foundation websites are usually clear about what is verboten. 


Understand who is funded.Many foundations are very specific about who is eligible. Some, like the Jessie Ball DuPont Fund, list eligible organizations right on their website. Some support only organizations affiliated with a particular church or denomination. For example, Porticus North America and the Raskob Foundation support only Catholic institutions. 


Conform to the granting agency’s workflow.Before you submit your proposal, find out how the granting agency handles requests and makes decisions. What are the various points of review, planning, agreement, and implementation? Be communicative and transparent in every step of the process. 


Ask for the money. Once you have identified a granting agency that promotes what you are seeking to do, it’s time to let that agency know that your school wants to help them fulfill their mission. You are doing them a favor, and it’s a mutually beneficial relationship— you have the staff to implement world-changing initiatives, while they have the cash to support such initiatives but not the people to do the work. 


Because what you are seeking is a relationship between organizations, it may be best to seek a planning grant first — a smaller proposal that will give the granting agency a chance to get to know you and assess the quality of your work. They may even want to help you shape your proposal for a larger implementation grant. 


A planning grant should:

  • Have as its primary goal the design of an implementation grant. 
  • Allow for a meeting with key players to discuss the major issues.
  • Establish and cultivate the relationships that will later be essential for implementation of the work. 
  • Outline the work and identify the people who will do it. 

Do what you said you would do or ask permission to change the plan.Of course, it’s absolutely essential to fulfill the terms of your proposal. Some ways to stay on track: 

  • Operate according to a planned schedule, and prepare an exigency plan to prepare for hiccups along the way.
  • When something changes environmentally — for example, the death or reassignment of a colleague, or a technological modification that enables a better thing to be pursued at a certain point in the grant period — submit a modification request. 
  • Wait for approval from the granting agency before implementing the modification or spending the money differently from the original intention.


All boards are concerned with ensuring that their institution has enough money to fulfill the mission. And boards that understand the grammar of grants can meaningfully consider them as part of their strategic planning, just as they engage in discussions about increasing tuition revenues or expanding the donor base. 


The key is to be well informed. Grants are not “free money,” and they don’t appear magically. They always come with strings, like reporting requirements and spending restrictions. But sometimes those strings can help you dance just the way you always wanted, fulfilling your mission with economic vitality. 

Top Topics
Roles & Responsibilities
Board Essentials

Back to Issue  Read Previous Article Read Next Article

Advertise With Us

Reach thousands of seminary administrators, trustees, and others in positions of leadership in North American theological schools — an audience that cares about good governance, effective leadership, and current religious issues — by advertising in In Trust!

Learn More