Many child life programs suffer from a significant imbalance between great projects and the money needed to fund them. Whether looking to launch a new child life program, increase current staffing, make over a playroom, or launch a thousand other worthy projects, advocating for the value of the undertaking and demonstrating its worth through evidence-based practice and other means is often much easier than coming up with the funds to make it happen. Once facility allies buy in to the idea, funding must still be secured. Oftentimes, child life professionals face the sentiment, “We love the idea, but there’s no money for it.” Fortunately, grant opportunities can sometimes fill this funding gap.
One of the most common funding gaps is salary. Whether expanding a program into a new clinical area or introducing child life services to a facility for the first time, the need for salary funding is central. After all, the greatest value in child life is the staff, not the stuff. Always keep in mind, though, that unlike hospital budgets that renew each year, grants are typically one-time offerings, meant to address a specific and finite need. Grant-giving organizations very rarely provide grants to cover salary – the quintessential, ever-present, self-renewing need.
If staffing is the greatest need, though, there are ways to leverage grant funding to propel growth and expansion. It can even serve to provide much-needed financial security to a fledgling program. For example, in 2009, our hospital’s grant writer secured a pair of grants that combined to provide a step-down model of funding to launch a one-person child life program. The step down occurred over a three-year period, with 100% grant funding for year one, 50% for year two, and 25% for year three. In order to access these grants, the hospital had to agree in advance to cover the balance for the second and third years. This arrangement allowed the hospital to trial child life services at minimal financial cost. It also appealed to the grant funders as a powerful use of grant funding to launch a new program that would transition to a hospital-sustained financial model over the three-year period. This was a win-win all around!
PUBLIC VS. PRIVATE GRANTS
Grants typically come in two primary flavors: public (also called “governmental”) and private. Public grants can provide expansive funding, but often target a very narrow scope of projects. Additionally, they often carry heavy legislation – laws, rules, and regulations— as well as copious amounts of paperwork regarding how the money is used, tracked, and reported on. This means public grants have little flexibility in terms of application, use, and reporting (Gitlin & Lyons, 2014). On the upside, public grants will sometimes fund for-profit facilities, but otherwise rarely make a likely choice for child life funding needs. Private grants, on the other hand, typically prove far less complicated in the application and reporting processes, have more flexible funding interests, and offer a wider range of grant sizes. Private grants most often come from either non-profit organizations (including private foundations) looking to fund projects that align with their own mission, or corporations looking to serve their community while also improving their image and/or gaining a tax break. When non-profit organizations give grants, they must select other non-profit organizations as recipients in order to protect their non-profit status and tax benefits. Likewise, corporations giving grants for tax benefits must also select non-profit recipients. This means that child life programs in for-profit facilities are typically ineligible for private grants.
HOW DO I FIND A GRANT?
Not all projects are equally likely to land a grant. In fact, the competition is pretty stiff under the best of circumstances, with only approximately 10% of grant applications being selected for funding (Foundation Center, 2011). Most grant funders will offer a specific description of the type of projects they are open to funding. Grant givers usually gravitate towards new or innovative programs, especially those with a clear trajectory towards self-sufficiency included in the start-up plan. In child life, these programs might include the renovation of a playroom, building of a treatment room, or piloting services in a new clinical area – especially one that has expressed a willingness to take over funding following a successful pilot program. Even under the best of circumstances, though, securing grant funding can take a ponderously long time, often up to a year. When considering the use of grants for a project, always keep in mind both the low rate of funding and the lengthy “grant time” that the process can take. Fortunately, it is not only acceptable, but also genuinely advisable to apply for multiple grants for the same project. If one funder selects the project for partial funding, that information can then be shared with the other potential funders, and can increase the chance of being selected. Much like donation-matching programs offered by employers, grant givers know that they will get more “bang for their buck” in a project well funded by multiple sources.
The first step in getting a grant is finding the right match. A good match includes a proposed project that closely aligns with the funder’s area of interest, has a budget that matches the funder’s typical price range, is located in the funder’s preferred geographic area, and is open to unsolicited proposals (some grant-givers have an “apply by invitation only” policy; Gerli, 2012a). Much of this information can be found on the funder’s website, or through a web search of related news articles. When researching corporate funders, be sure to study up on the parent company as well. Public websites, such as www.guidestar.org, can provide copies of the funder’s 990 tax form, which includes information about previous grants the organization has funded (Gerli, 2012b). Searchable foundation databases can help in developing a list of potential funders to research, but usually require a subscription to access. Some, like The Foundation Center, can be accessed through participating libraries (Foundation Center, 2016).
CREATING A GRANT APPLICATION
At some hospitals and other medical facilities, child life specialists can partner with the organization’s grant writer to share the work of obtaining grants. For organizations that employ a professional grant writer, this person should be viewed as a sacrosanct gatekeeper. Never, ever, apply for a grant without including the grant writer in the process. This is the worst breech of etiquette, and can lead to irreversible damage of that grant writer’s reputation, donor relationships, and good will towards the child life program. It also leaves the facility vulnerable to inadvertent “double dipping”—that is, having two grant applications come to the same funder at the same time, when only one is permitted. This is a guaranteed way to make sure neither gets funded! For those facilities without a grant writer, the child life specialist would do well to connect with the donor development department (sometimes called “foundation,” “donor relations,” or “sponsored research”) to ensure a collaborative relationship moving forward.
Whether fortunate to partner with a grant writer or forging ahead alone, the steps of the process are much the same. First, clarify the need and scope of the project including the goals, evidence of value, and a concrete budget. Next, connect with leaders in the affected area(s) to gain buy-in, support, and approval. Then, create a portfolio of existing resources that will support the new project, such as additional funding sources, list of allies, and volunteer support. A rich assortment of supplemental resources will enhance the project’s attraction for potential funders (Gerli, 2012a). Develop a sustainability plan that demonstrates how the project will continue to bring benefits or meet goals after the grant funding concludes. Finally, clarify the deadlines and process for applying. After completing all research, but before beginning the actual written application, it can be helpful to reach out to the funder with a phone call or email if the organization is open to personal contact (some are not). Have a thirty second verbal description of the project ready to share that includes a clear connection between the project goal and the funder’s priorities. Ask if this sounds like a project that might appeal to the funder, and if there are any special instructions or insights for the application process that could be shared.
Each application will look different, but most include a description of the need, an outline of the project, a proposed budget, a plan for evaluating success, a plan for sustainability, and an executive summary (abstract). Whenever possible, include concrete, measureable data. This can include metric data about the relevant patient census or the specific need, as well as research data. Along with the numbers, include a story or two, to put a human face on the need. How will this project affect the life of a single child? While the numbers describe the scope of impact, the story connects it to the heart of the funder. Most applications will also require some standard forms from the requesting organization, such as the 501(c) (3) certification letter proving non-profit status, a list of board members and their affiliations, audited financials, and the requesting organization’s 990 tax document (Holtzclaw, Kenner, Walden, & Kenner, 2009). Regardless of what components the application calls for, first and foremost read, and re-read, the instructions and follow them to the letter. (These instructions are often referred to as an RFP – Request For Proposal). Keep everything neatly organized, labeled, and ensure that the final product is highly polished and professional. Once the final document appears completely ready to go, ask a colleague who knows nothing about the project to read it, and see if it makes sense. After that, send it off (electronically, by certified mail, or track-able delivery system), and then . . . Wait.
YOU’RE FUNDED! NOW WHAT?
Having the project selected for funding is wildly exciting, but really only the beginning of the grant’s journey. Spending the money and seeing the project come to fruition can be quite gratifying, but there is still work to be done. Beyond accountability through written reports and financial statements, grant stewardship can also help build trust and reputation with the funder, leading to an increased chance of funding for future projects. For corporations seeking to improve their company’s image or non-profit organizations looking to increase their support base, most grant funders appreciate, or even require, public acknowledgment of the grant (Foundation Center, 2005) . Written reports, too, are standard and include financial statements and receipts, as well as a report on the use of funds and outcomes for the project. Remember that grant funds may only ever be used for the exact purpose described in the proposal. Even the slightest deviation from the plan requires written permission from the funder. While creating the report for the funder, this is a great time to include some colorful photos and the story of a child whose life was changed, or experience transformed, due to the generosity of the funder.
Organizations that give grants, and the individuals within those companies who select which proposed projects to fund, all want the same thing — to make a difference. By selecting strong potential matches through careful research, constructing a solid and persuasive application, and most importantly, putting forth a powerful and innovative project for funding, child life specialists can gain access to critical grant funds to launch, support, enhance, and expand their work. Even better, a practice of mindful stewardship and engaged reporting over a course of years can result in a strong network of funders and allies to turn to for future projects as well.
Foundation Center. (2016). Funding Information Network (formerly called Cooperating Collections). Retrieved from
Foundation Center. (2011). Foundation Growth and Giving Estimates. New York, NY: Lawrence.
Foundation Center (2005). Foundation Funding for Children’s Health. New York, NY: Lawrence.
Gerli, M. (2012a). How to Develop and Write a Grant Proposal. (CRS Report No. Report RL32159). Retrieved from
Gerli, M.(2012b). Resources for Grantseekers. (CRS Report No. RL34012). Retrieved from
Gitlin, L. N., & Lyons, K. J. (2014). Successful grant writing: Strategies for health and human service professionals. New York, NY: Springer.
Holtzclaw, B. J., Kenner, C., Walden, M., & Kenner, C. (2009). Grant writing handbook for nurses. Sudbury, Mass: Jones and Bartlett.