Giving New Life to Rural Indiana

This series provides insight about the economic and social issues affecting rural Indiana and highlights the public-private partnerships that are helping turn the tide. Check in each Tuesday for a new segment.


Great Ideas Get Help

Grants Fill Budget Gaps for Hoosier Communities


By Nancy Alexander

creek running through MacGregor Park This creek runs through MacGregor Park, a secluded slice of nature near the convergence of two busy highways, just north of Westfield, Ind. Park staff have used grant funding to expand the park and make improvements. (Photo by Olivia Maddox)

Markine Sipes had some great ideas for MacGregor Park and Nature Preserve in northern Hamilton County. Her quandary, as project coordinator for Washington Township Parks and Recreation, was in finding a way to pay for them.

“We thought, there’s all sorts of money out there, and we have all sorts of needs,” Sipes says. “But we knew absolutely nothing about grant writing.”

So Sipes and a colleague invested in a grant-writing workshop developed by Purdue Extension and taught through county-based offices statewide. Under the guidance of Tony Carrell, former Extension educator in Boone County and current 4-H Youth Development program specialist, Sipes learned the basics.

“Tony suggested we try small grants to start, but we had already begun work on a federal grant, so we brought it to the class and took off from there,” Sipes says. The result was a $200,000 award from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. “It was super-exciting and a very good grant for our first one.”

The award was atypical, Carrell says, because success usually comes only after multiple tries. “You have to have the stamina to keep tweaking the application until someone accepts it.”

Sipes and her colleagues have since parlayed their skills into three more grants totaling more than a half-million dollars, which funded the purchase of additional acreage and development of some of those ideas for the park near U.S. 31 and state Route 38.

Practical, Expert Help

Grant funding can’t fill every budgetary gap, but Indiana municipalities and nonprofit organizations are using Purdue Extension expertise to help them find money for services and infrastructure to help build more livable communities.

Individuals from about 150 Indiana communities have taken advantage of the grant-writing class. Their successful proposals total about $9 million in grants of various sizes funding a wide range of needs, such as an upgraded kitchen in a 4-H center, vehicles, medical facilities and playground equipment, and covering an animal shelter’s veterinary costs.

collage of projects funded through grant-writing workshops, including kitchen,s, vehicles, and playground equipment Successful proposals by participants in Purdue Extension's grant-writing workshops have totaled about $9 million in grants of various sizes, funding a wide range of needs, such as an upgraded kitchen in a 4-H center, vehicles, medical facilities and playground equipment, and an animal shelter’s veterinary costs.

“Grants are critical, but they’re part of a balanced portfolio,” says Scott Hutcheson , assistant director of Purdue Extension’s Economic and Community Development program. “A good nonprofit or municipality needs to diversify its revenue streams just like a business. Many small nonprofits or communities are probably not taking full advantage of the other funding sources that are out there.”

Although grant-writing training is available online and through other sources, what sets Purdue’s program apart is its affordability—a $150 fee includes lunch and materials—and Extension’s understanding of local needs, says Peggy Hosea, project coordinator of the grant-writing training program.

Among the training materials the center provides to local Purdue Extension offices is a DVD featuring three instructors: Hutcheson, who has secured grants totaling $37 million throughout his career; professor of agricultural economics Joan Fulton; and nonprofit management consultant Sabina Calhoun.

The Extension educators may incorporate the DVD as they tailor the course to suit their regions. “Extension facilitators have a real desire to be a partner in the community,” Hosea says. “Say you’re a small rural community that needs a new cow barn at the county fairgrounds. Where does that money come from? Well, we have a resource—people who have a successful track record of getting funding.”

The class takes place over two days a month apart. After a first day packed with the basics of the grant-writing process—defining objectives, creating a budget, identifying prospective funders—attendees are charged to start drafting a proposal for their own potential project.

“A lot of times, they have an idea; they think they know what they’re asking for but really are just scratching the surface,” says development officer Lydia Armstrong, who teaches the course in Marion County. “We have to get them to focus in, to get to the nitty-gritty of their need.”

They bring their application back a month later for class evaluation, and the facilitators remain available in between for help and advice. “One of the pluses we hear about frequently is being able to get one-on-one feedback from a Purdue connection,” Hosea says.

Purdue Extension’s Economic and Community Development program is simply capitalizing on Indiana’s culture of philanthropy, Hutcheson notes. “There’s no state that has as robust a community foundation network as Indiana. Community foundations are often partners in our local programs; they want to have good proposals come before them. We’re building the capacity of local folks to find the resources to meet local needs by giving them the skills to craft a compelling funding proposition so funders will invest.”

Paper to Laptops

Visits to the nonprofit Matrix Pregnancy Resource Center in Lafayette, Ind., doubled in 2013, to more than 3,000. Such growth prompted its director, Melissa McAtee, and assistant director, Lauren Glynn, to attend Purdue’s grant-writing course last fall in nearby Clinton County with facilitator Melinda Grismer.

“We know that we could be doing much more if we’re able to expand not only our services but also our facility and staffing,” McAtee says. “We are fully funded by individuals and churches, and we wanted to see what else was out there. We needed to update our technology and wanted to utilize other sources. We took this idea into the class.”

The $7,499 grant for technology that McAtee and Glynn wrote, and that their Community Foundation funded, supports the center’s Earn While You Learn program and increases their service capacity. “Having laptops that enable us to work and function in any room creates a more efficient, streamlined process,” McAtee says. “Then we can meet with more women.”

McAtee and Glynn intend to continue asking Grismer, Purdue Extension economic and community development educator, for her advice on future applications. “Grants allow us to develop new programs or ensure our current programs can continue while we make them better,” McAtee says.

Safe Paths to School

As communications director and grant writer for the town of Brownsburg in suburban Indianapolis, Annisa Rainey works for every department in the municipality. She came to the newly created position in 2010, when many towns were scrambling to take advantage of stimulus funds.

“Brownsburg is a unique community in that we’re not rural enough, not poor enough and not big enough to qualify for a lot of the funding,” she says. “When it came to writing my first proposal, the Purdue course sounded so hands-on, practical, close and affordable, and the timing was perfect,” she says.

Rainey didn’t get the grant for defibrillators that she worked on in the Marion County class. But she credits the skills she acquired there with subsequent grants exceeding $338,000. A $250,000 grant from the Indiana Departments of Transportation, Health and Education paid for a path connecting several schools with the public library to make walking and bicycling to school safer for students. Other grants helped decrease energy consumption and costs by enabling the town to replace outdated motors in the water and wastewater treatment facilities, buy new video/audio recording equipment for interview rooms at the police department and implement a street tree inventory and management plan.

More Manpower

Melissa Britton, associate director at the Indiana University Center for Latin-American and Caribbean Studies, was serving on the board of the Latino Community Center in Bloomington when she enrolled in the grant-writing course in Marion County. Largely self-taught in grant-writing, Britton needed some expert advice on an application to fund volunteer coordinator and health coordinator positions at the center.

“Most funders are more interested in capital projects,” she notes. “It’s so hard for nonprofits; they need help with operational costs, but grant-funders don’t want to fund operational costs.”

Britton learned that, for her, an effective grant starts with the budget. “Putting numbers to it helped refine the idea and map out what I wanted to do,” she says.

The peer review built into the class also helped Britton frame her proposal clearly. “There were things that, in my mind, were all very obvious to me. But it had to make sense to someone else who knew nothing about it.”

In the following year or two, she and her fellow board member secured about $40,000 through three local and statewide grants that were key to the organization’s growth.

So what’s it like to win? “It’s fabulous,” Britton says. “You’re basically turning your time and a 30-page document into $10,000—that’s pretty awesome. Then you’re entering into a relationship, and it’s a lot more work.”

The Real Work Begins

With a grant comes obligation. Armstrong, the Marion County facilitator, says grant recipients often don’t understand how much follow-through is required. “We try to remind them that whatever you say you’re going to do within the grant, this is your contract,” she says. “The grantor is going to ask you how you spent the money, and you have to report that. They want to be sure you are good stewards of these funds.”

Rainey agrees that while grant money is valuable, “You have to have key staff in place who are taking the lead to make sure you’re spending your time wisely in pursuing these funds. You have to have project managers to meet the reporting requirements, or it puts the project at risk. You have to ask, ‘Is this a good match for us?’”

When it is, grant funding can make a big difference for Indiana towns and nonprofits. Says Sipes: “In some ways that’s how we’re going to be able to develop and maintain our little part of the world.”

Stellar Communities program draws on Purdue Extension resources

In addition to directly helping individuals tap potential funding for their communities, Purdue Extension backs small-town development in a more supportive role.

Some Indiana communities are funding comprehensive projects through grants from the Stellar Communities program, a multiagency partnership of the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs, Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority, and Indiana Department of Transportation. Among the 2012 recipients of the highly competitive grants is Princeton.

The funds were allocated to several projects, explains Hans Schmitz, Extension educator in Gibson County: transforming Princeton’s old theatre into a community events center, renovating the city parking lot and constructing senior housing next to the Extension office.

Those projects, in turn, have created new opportunities for Purdue Extension. The parking lot renovation, for example, allows the Gibson County Master Gardeners, who had been maintaining the beds there, to redirect their talents and services to other projects, including some at the county courthouse, Schmitz notes.

Purdue Extension also will offer educational programs to residents of the senior housing complex on such topics as nutrition, finance and consumer horticulture.

Next Tuesday: Director of Purdue Extension Jason Henderson explains what has to change for rural America to prosper again.

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