How do we effectively engage in grant writing as librarians? On this show, I speak with Julie Edwards, Librarian and Instructional Designer with Niche Academy. She shares practical steps and strategies for our libraries for writing grants, and even what to do when you don’t get one.
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This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. You’re listening to Library Leadership Podcast, where we talk about libraries, and leadership, and speak with guests who share their ideas, innovations, and strategic insights into the profession.
How do we effectively engage in grant writing as librarians? On this show, I speak with Julie Edwards, Librarian and Instructional Designer with Niche Academy. She shares practical steps and strategies for our libraries for writing grants, and even what to do when you don’t get one. Given all the opportunities that libraries have to enhance services through grant funding, this is highly useful information. Enjoy the show!
Julie, welcome to the show.
Thank you so much for having me.
Question #1: Thank you for talking with me today about Grant Writing 101. As we jump in, why is it important to have practical steps and strategies for our libraries in the area of grant writing? 01:21
I think a great place to start is something that we were just chatting about before the call, that we librarians don’t necessarily start out as grant writers, but we often end up there.
I think we know that grants are so useful for our institutions, no matter what type of library you’re in. You can use them to expand existing programs, or launch new programs. They raise the profile of your library. They’re great for building partnerships and personal capacity, but knowing how to do that is not always something that we all come into the profession with, right? If you have practical steps and strategies in place, it means that when you come across a grant, and you’re ready to apply, you can really focus in on writing and planning—without having to scramble to get all of the supplemental materials and information that you need to put that grant together.
They really do—some of them require just a lot of external paperwork, a lot of information that you might not have ever thought about until you sit down to write that grant. So, the more that you can think about the practical ways to do that work, the easier the actual work will go.
I find grant writing—some people are really afraid of grant writing. I find it so creative, kind of like a puzzle because there are really strong constrictions on what you can do, right? But, within those parameters, you can have a lot of creativity. Getting your nuts and bolts out of the way will open up more creative space for you when you start writing.
And, I think it’s really important to know how grants work, and what will make them more competitive. That makes the process a little less stressful. It makes you feel a little bit more in control when you sit down to write a grant.
Question #2: I like that. And, I like the way you say it’s a creative process. It takes a little bit of the intimidation out of it. And, I know that you instruct librarians that before we even pick up a pen to write a grant, we have a lot of pre-planning to do. Will you share about that? 03:32
Yeah. Absolutely. So, grant writing is telling a story. To tell a really good story it helps to know what your backstory is—to understand your backstory, to get a sense of how you want to structure your story. I always talk to librarians about thinking about, What is your story?
We write grants when we need something, right? We either see a cool program that we want to bring into the library, or we need funding to help us start a cool program or service. Thinking about needs is often where people start, but you don’t want to get lost in there.
Everybody has needs. All libraries have needs. What I tell librarians is, As part of your pre-planning, don’t get caught up in what you need. Think about what the library can do with the support of the grant. So, an important part of pre-planning for me is thinking about what are the outcomes that you want for patrons—not for the library. A lot of times with grant writing, we get stuck in this, you know, the library needs this, the library needs that. That is—it’s true, but it might not make your grant stand out, and it might not make your grant successful. Focusing instead on what grants are going to help patrons do or learn is the better place to start.
So, getting yourself into that headspace of thinking about, How is this grant going to increase the library’s impact on the community, right? You should constantly be thinking, outcomes and impact, outcomes and impact. Think about it as part of your pre-planning, What is the library already good at? What do you do well that the grant will help you do better?
I come at librarianship decision-making from an asset-based perspective. Instead of thinking about needs and all of the things we could be doing if we just had more money, I tend to think about—what do we do well and how do we build on it? Then, leverage the grant to do that. A big part of my thinking is to get librarians in that headspace. This is the root of all kinds of pre-planning. Thinking less about need, more about impact—and, the more you can do this, just naturally, the easier it will be to tell your story when you actually sit down to write that grant.
Question #3: Sure. And, I think for a lot of us our mission is the core part of that story. So, how do we talk about that when writing a grant? And, why does that matter? 06:26
It matters so much. The mission is really how you know and tell your story. I have to confess, my first professional job in a public library—our mission was so simple. I worked for the Peabody Institute Library in Peabody, Massachusetts. The mission was to meet the informational, educational, and recreational needs of the community. And, that was it. It was simple. It was something that everybody who worked in the library could see where they fit into that mission.
Everything that I did as a public services librarian, adult services librarian, and programming librarian, I could see how it fit. And so, it’s worth it to really, I mean, if you have never looked at your library’s mission, take a look at it. See if you can put it into your own words—what does it mean to you? If you’re going to internalize that mission, what does it mean to you? And, how can you start thinking about everything you do on a daily basis in your library—how does that fit in with your library’s mission? That’s a good way to get to think about how your mission connects to the services and programs at your library? What is the impact that your library does for the community through the lens of your mission?
It really—it sounds sort of silly and simple, but I don’t know that a lot of us think about our mission statements on a very consistent basis. But, it really is worth it. I mean, it sounds crazy. Go ahead, find your mission. Read it. Then rewrite it in your own words, so that if you have to talk to somebody who has no idea what your mission is—which is essentially what’s going to happen when you write a grant. You’ll have to be explaining what your mission is, what you believe in, and how you enact that in the community.
So, getting really familiar with that is super useful to give yourself a frame to talk about everything you do. You want everything to fit together. So, understanding your mission, understanding how your services fit into that mission, and understanding the impact that has on the community, that’s where you start to form—even before you start writing, a cohesive narrative about what your library does.
Question #4: And, when we’re implementing our mission we have good people around us helping us do that every day. How can we develop a good grant writing team in conjunction with that? 09:07
This is something I came across by accident when I joined the Peabody Library. Because, I came in there to an organization, with a whole bunch of people that had written grants together before. They had a team in place, and it was my first experience writing grants as part of a team. It was really transformational for me to get a sense of, You can do this with a group of people who work really well together. That takes—as long as you’re well organized, that takes a lot of the pressure off writing grants on your own.
There are a few key things to think about when you’re thinking about putting together a grant writing team, if you don’t want to go at this alone. The first place to start is to know your own strengths and weaknesses. I love writing narratives. I think I’m pretty good at it, but I cannot put two and two together. If you asked me to do a budget for a grant I would not be a person to do that. So, knowing that about myself, when I come across a grant that needs a budget attached to it—I have one particular colleague, when I was working in a library, who was just really good with numbers. So, she would take over the budget part where she was really strong. I would take on all the writing and editing, and it made the whole process seem less onerous for either one of us. It becomes fun, actually, when you can stick with those areas that you are most comfortable and can be most creative in.
So, knowing your own strengths, finding people to fill those gaps—if you do write as a team, and this is something that I learned in my really early days at Peabody, keeping the communication lines open and transparent, that is absolutely key. Everyone has to know what everybody else is doing. And, you really need to have regular and constant communication with each other. It can be very easy—you know, the downside of working with a team is that stuff can slip through the cracks and no one has noticed it.
So, keeping communication open, having deadlines, committing to deadlines is really, really important. I also think grant writing—this is maybe some advice for the directors who might be listening. The senior person in the library is not necessarily the best person to write the grant. If that person is not great at writing or drafting budgets, right? I think that grant writing is a great way to build individual capacity. It’s a great way to mentor your employees.
I was really lucky coming in as a new librarian, and as a fairly young librarian, to be given some of the responsibilities for writing a grant—really helped shape the trajectory of my career. So, if you’re a director you want to pick the best people to write a grant on your staff. They’re competitive, and so you have to be competitive. It’s not the place to necessarily claim turf. [laughter] You might have to—sign off on things, but if you have a younger employee, or a newer employee, who really wants to learn this, and they have the skills to do it I would say, encourage them to do it.
Keep your teams nimble. I’ve worked with different iterations of teams based on the type of grant that I’m working on. You can pull people in, or out. I’m all for flexibility. I was not hired as a grant writer. It wasn’t even a part of my job description, although I think more and more we’re seeing this as a skill that people are asking for in the libraries.
For me, I just learned how to do this on the fly with the support of a team. I will say the last thing about teamwork again, for your directors, is that this work should be done on the clock. I cannot emphasize that enough. Grant writing takes a lot of time. And, you need to be able to give people the time to actually do that work. So, it is not going to work as an add-on, with nothing taken away. So, if you’re finding people to write grants, if you have a team that wants to do it, give them the time and space to think through, and write through the process.
Question #5: Thank you. That is so helpful. And, so once you have this team pulled together, or you’ve got your process in place for how this is going to be done, what are some of the commonly needed documents that you’re going to want to gather? 14:29
This is what my co-authors and I have—former public librarians, all of us who wrote a book, including a chapter on grant writing, called it the grant toolkit. We came up with this because we were seeing over, and over again that different types of grants are always asking for the same types of supporting material. So, having that in place beforehand saves a lot of time.
We advise librarians to put this grant writing toolkit together. And, those types of documents will vary, but some general things that you want to have in there would be census, and demographic info for your community, any documents related to your mission, your vision, sometimes your strategic planning documents, any data that you have about collection size, budgets, library hours, service data. So, how many programs do you offer? How many visitors do you get a year? Staff resumes—some grants will want to have access to the resumes of everyone who might be involved in managing a grant process. So, having those somewhere, and kept up to date, is useful. Any sort of tax exemption documents, sample letters of support that you can have people personalize as you need them to. These are all things that are useful to have in your grant writing toolkit.
You want to have a conversation with your director, with your library, about where’s this material going to live, who’s going to have access to it, how’s it going to be updated? So, it’s handy to have those conversations, and to figure out what you need so that it’s all at your fingertips when you go to write a grant.
So, when a grantor says, I need a copy of your insurance. You have that somewhere. We have pulled these together individually. Then as we started realizing we need these over, and over again. We collated them and kept them updated. So, that is a lot of—even if you don’t have a grant on the horizon, put together a toolkit like that so that you’ve got all this stuff ready when you need it.
Question #6: That’s great to have everything at your fingertips. And, you’ve already started touching on this, but when we think about time management and sustainability in grants, what should we consider? 17:05
Sustainability is probably the most important thing to consider. As I mentioned, grants take a lot of resources. The writing alone takes a lot of resources, and time, personnel, and then if you get a grant it takes a lot to manage one.
It can be really, [laughter] speaking from experience here. It can be really disappointing to put a lot of work into a project and not get a grant. It’s equally disappointing to put a lot of work into a project, get the grant, and then have it fizzle when the money runs out.
So, thinking—the number one question to ask yourself is, Can the library sustain this once the money runs out? Can you actually commit to the project, or the program, so that if you don’t get a second grant—if you don’t get the full amount that you asked for, what can you keep doing? Can you sustain this?
This is part of why going back to that asset-building question—thinking about what…
A lot of times people want to start from scratch, and that may not be the best idea. If you have something that’s working that you can make better, that’s not a bad place to apply for grant funding, to make something better, to give it more impact. Because then, you have something already in place, so that you can sustain it. It’s already being sustained. You just want to punch it up a little bit. So, really thinking through those things.
Then in terms of the management itself, grants are competitive. Deadlines are non-negotiable. Time management—especially if you’re working with a team, is a big deal. Knowing the deadline, submitting early, and then I used to plan backwards. I would look at the submission date of the application, and just work backwards from that date. Say, Okay, by this point I need my letters of support, by this point, the narrative needs to be written and edited. Here’s when I need the budget done. So, I made a backwards map, literally, on a piece of paper, so that I could keep track of what needs to get done, when. Then that’s also a good way—it’s not only a good way of managing your time, but it helps make sure you’re covering all your bases.
Question #7: Can you share a little bit about the actual writing process for grants? 19:45
Most of them are divided into budgets and narratives. With a narrative you—the equation I use is that you want to link an idea, to the funds, to the impact. For example, let’s say that you are working for a library that wants to start a podcast. The idea is, We want to start a podcast. The funds that you’re asking for will help you buy the equipment, and train people to do podcasts. But, the impact is, What is the podcast going to do for the library? How’s it going to get people to engage with us in new ways, in different ways?
So, that sort of roadmap is what you should craft through your narrative. How does your idea link to the money that you would be getting through this grant and what will it do for the community? You’ll always want to think about what success looks like. Grants—you know, they’re not free money. The grantors want to know what does success mean to you.
So having a sense of, What does success look like? How are you going to measure it? Is it new listeners to our podcast? Is it increased engagement in some way? Thinking about that from the start.
A lot of people get overwhelmed with the narrative when they sit down to write it, because it is a different style of writing. I find it very creative, but there are a lot of parameters. One of the tricks I use is to let the grant application guide me through my writing. So, if I notice that the grant application is broken up into different sections like demographics of your community, mission and history of the library. I will use that—take those sections and use it to write my narrative.
If you have language in the grant. If there’s language in the grant that you can borrow, do that. So, I might be talking about a schedule, but the grant might use the term work plan, so I will adjust my writing to mirror the language in the grant.
So, those are just a few tricks that I use. Following that structure, borrowing the language—that makes the process a little bit easier. It will give you a toehold in, if you really don’t know where to start.
In terms of the budget. This is going to sound like a crazy thing to say, but find out first if you can actually draft the budget. There may be cases where the person who actually manages the finances in your library has to do that. This happened to me when I moved from the public library to the academic library. I had applied for a grant, and I put it in, and was so happy—it was a little one. I was so pleased. I did the budget all by myself. Then the main research office at the university called me and said, What are you doing? I said, I put this grant in. And they’re like, You’re not—you can’t do that without going through us first. And I was like, Oh. I had no idea. So, I had done a lot of extra work, and made a lot of extra work for them. So, find out if you’re able to put the budget together first.
Know what your allowable expenses are. Do not ask for something that the grant is not going to fund. It’s a signal that you didn’t read carefully enough, right? If you’re saying, We want a bunch of food and the grant is very explicit saying, We’re not going to cover food. Don’t do that. And, be specific in your budget. Instead of asking for like, advertising money, break that down. I need this much to do social media ads. I need this much to do printing for posters, this much for print advertising. It lets the grantor know exactly where you’re going to put the money and it lets them know that you thought through what advertising means.
Question #8: What do we do when we don’t get a grant? 24:05
So, [laughter] we’ve all been there. I was joking—if you are the librarian who has always gotten every grant you applied for, you should totally start consulting because it’s just so rare. You’re going to write a grant and not get it. It happens. And, it’s disappointing. There have been a few, one in particular, that I really wanted that I didn’t get. It was so—I was really let down by it. But there are some ways to bounce back from that. If you’re lucky enough to get a good response from the granting agency, read through it carefully. Sometimes you’ll just get a, No, this didn’t work. But sometimes they’ll give you some feedback.
Understand that feedback. Read through it and try to absorb what they’re saying. If you don’t get that feedback it’s often okay to call and talk to the grantor and say, You know, we put in this grant. It wasn’t successful, could you give me suggestions about what worked and what didn’t? This is really useful if you’re planning on revising and resubmitting the grant. So, having those conversations—just so you get a little bit of sense of what went well, and where you could do better can really be helpful.
I think a lot of people are afraid to call and talk to grantors, but it’s really useful. You can think smaller, like if there’s part of the grant that you can implement, maybe revise, and resubmit—not for the whole big project, but just for a part of it, that’s okay. Small is not bad. Small helps you build up a record of success.
Then having a backup plan, this is that sustainability conversation. Before you even write the grant you should have a conversation with your director. What if we don’t get it, what are we going to do?
Question #9: Absolutely, just in case, because like you said, We don’t get all the grants we put in for. That’s the nature of this work. Anything else you would like to share? 26:04
You know, I would just tell your listeners to not be afraid of writing grants. It can be really intimidating, but it’s a really interesting and creative process. It’s good for the library and good for individual librarians to build these skills up.
This is something that you learn by doing. I feel so lucky now because I, you know, my job with Niche Academy is writing these tutorials to help librarians learn how to do these things, and build up their capacity, which then impacts a whole community. Don’t be afraid of grant writing.
Question #10: Absolutely. We won’t be after we listen to this. It’s going to be so helpful, Julie. Do you have a favorite management or leadership book, and why? 26:51
It’s not a genre I read much in. I really don’t.
Question #11: In closing, what do libraries mean to you, personally? 27:05
Oh, this is such a good question. My first job in a library was when I was sixteen. My grandfather was on the maintenance team of a library at a small college in Dudley, Massachusetts. He got me my first job as a clerk, during the summer, in the library. It was such a wonderful fit for me. I worked in libraries all through college and graduate school, and when I left school and started working in public libraries I really—it dawned on me, I mean, honestly it was almost like a lightning bolt out of the clouds. This is social justice work. This is not just about checking books in and out. As soon as I realized that, I was like, I’m going to library school. This is it, you know?
So, for me I think, libraries are just so foundational to our communities, to who we are, to democracy. I call them—I’m a Harry Potter fan. I call them our room of requirement, right? The library can be anything that you need it to be. I just love that. I can’t think of any other institution that does the same thing in our society.
Absolutely. Julie, thank you so much for being on the show today, and sharing all of this valuable information about grant writing. I know a lot of us are going to go out and be brave, and give it a try after we listen to you. So, I appreciate you being here.
Thank you. I hope so—happy grant writing, and thank you so much.
You’ve been listening to Library Leadership Podcast. This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. For more episodes tune into https://libraryleadershippodcast.com, where you can now subscribe to have monthly updates delivered right into your email inbox. Our producer is Nathan Sinclair Vineyard. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time.
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