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Soft grants can fund school projects

November 16, 2015

While many districts actively compete in formal grant programs, they often ignore a more lucrative source of funds:  celebrities.

Many high-earning celebrities, including actors, directors, writers, entertainers, sports stars, talk show hosts, broadcasters and others sponsor charities, donate items for fundraising auctions, or make pledges to crowdfunding campaigns.  Still others engage in “soft grants,” donating funds to projects that capture their interest.  Soft grants tend to have no application process.  All that is involved is a public or private appeal, and hopefully a check.

In fact, the award of a soft grant may depend more on the publicity value of the donation or whether it strokes the celebrity ego.  Sometimes, a specific project may pull at a celebrity’s heart strings and compel him or her to open their wallets. At other times, a grant may be awarded to boost a tarnished image, or heighten a public profile. But in the end, it is the recipient who benefits most.

Ellen DeGeneres for example, regularly features schools, teachers, and classrooms in need on her talk show.  With the help of corporate sponsors, she has funded school libraries, music and after-school programs, and provided aid to teachers in crisis.  Stephen Colbert funds every grant requested by teachers in South Carolina.  Taylor Swift, Steve Harvey, Oprah Winfrey, and other celebrities host charities that may fund educational projects.

Attracting celebrity dollars requires a public and private appeal.  The public appeal generates buzz, but does not target a specific donor.  A focused public relations campaign announces a funding need through social, broadcast, and print media.  Many times, it involves a video appeal on YouTube, a Facebook page, and a barrage of Twitter posts, as well as stories published in broadcast and print media.  The idea is to generate chatter and attract the attention of high value donors.  While many celebrities monitor appeals on social media, the difficulty lies in ensuring your plea lands in front of someone who will be motivated to act.

That’s where a private plea comes in.  A funding proposal is developed, and distributed to one or more specific celebrities.  It is not enough to simply write a letter, however.  A private appeal must be specific and well targeted. To develop an effective proposal, follow these steps:

  • Clarify and refine your appeal: Develop a clear and concise explanation of the project or need for which you are seeking funds.  Why is it important to your district?  How will it benefit students?  How much will it cost?   Is there a deadline?
  • Do your homework: After you have defined your funding goal, conduct a search online for celebrities with their own charitable foundations, or stories about celebrities making large donations.  There are also websites that list favored charities and causes by celebrity.  Develop a short list of potential targets, and research each to determine whether they have shown interest in school projects in the past, either as a volunteer, as a donor, or as a spokesperson.  Also check out their backgrounds.  Where did they attend school?  Do they have any family members affiliated with education?  Do they have children, or nieces or nephews, of school age?
  • Choose your target: Once you have gathered the information above, choose your target.  Collect as much information as you can about that celebrity.  Try to identify those factors that may make your pitch compelling to them.
  • Look to alumni and your network: Once you identify the celebrities you want to target, it becomes important to identify someone who can get you an introduction either in person, by mail, email, or telephone. Think about who you know. Do you have colleagues, friends or family who may have celebrity contacts, or know someone who does?
  • Develop a presentation that sells: You have already developed a general presentation, but ow it’s time to develop a targeted one. Think “out of the box.” A heartfelt appeal is not enough.  You need to show your target what their money can accomplish.   An architect’s rendering of a new playground, or a video that takes a viewer through the virtual building process makes the project concrete.  Other tactics might include making a video with appeals from children and/or the community, or collecting endorsement letters from government officials, even the president.  It is also important to emphasize the rewards to the celebrity, such as publicity, a plaque that acknowledges the contribution, participation in the groundbreaking or opening of the playground, and the attendant publicity.  Create a presentation that beings with the specific request and then fills in the details.
  • Choose your method of delivery: How will you get your request to the celebrity? Will it be personally delivered or sent via email?   Will you have the opportunity to deliver a presentation in person, or does the celebrity already have a process in place to handle requests for funding?  You must seek the most efficient way to grab their attention
  • Keep your request private: While it is alright to reveal that you are seeking a donation from celebrities, do not name specific targets.  Some celebrities prefer to keep charitable acts private, and implying that they may be involved with your project may backfire.
  • Follow up: If you do not hear from a celebrity in a reasonable period of time (two weeks to a month), you may want to follow up.  However, it is reasonable to assume that no news means bad news.  It might be wise to have another possibility ready in case the first does not take the hook.
  • A word about shaming: It is inappropriate to shame (attempt to embarrass) a celebrity who turns down your request or fails to respond to your plea.  You may have no guarantee that the celebrity actually reviewed the request.  In addition, shaming may force them to retaliate, causing you a public relations nightmare.  Shaming one celebrity pretty much ends the opportunity to seek funds from another.  No one will want to work with you.

In the end, organization and persistence rules the day when seeking funds from a celebrity.  And as the saying goes, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”  Hopefully, you have made your targeted celebrity aware of your district.  A second approach may be easier and more successful.

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