Getting a million dollar digital collection grant in six easy steps


Many of the libraries I’ve worked with on local digitization efforts start with great ideas about a big collection they could develop…if only they had enough money. Maybe there’s a local trove of unique documents that are historically important. Or thousands of photos recovered from a private collection after a disaster. No matter the source, imaginations run high and big, lofty goals are set. A hopeful dollar figure is calculated and the quest for a grant begins…only to end in disappointment.

Why? The goal is good, the materials are fantastic, the benefit to the community is apparent. In my experience, the search for the “Million Dollar Grant” often fails because it doesn’t follow these six important steps:

  • Step 1: Secure a $1,000 grant.
  • Step 2: Secure a $5,000 grant.
  • Step 3: Secure a $10,000 grant…

You get the picture…but do they?

OK, I admit it’s a cheesy way to introduce the topic. Steps 4–6 are, obviously, go get increasingly larger grants until you land the “big money” that you need to create your digital dream collection. But I’m absolutely serious—the best way to convince a grant-making entity to fund your program is to have a demonstrated series of successes with other grants. And just like with your career, you can’t start out in your dream job, you often have to work your way up from the bottom.

Because while you may have a clear picture in your head of what success looks like, the grant making agency doesn’t. Their picture is of you and your library’s history, reputation and experience. There are almost always lots of people applying for the same grant money. In order for your project to be successful, you have to demonstrate not just that you’ve got a great idea, but that you’ve got the know-how to make it happen.

So start small. Find a project you can do that will require many of the same steps as your dream grant, but with lower time, partnership and money commitments. This will give you a chance to practice the process, get some experience and refine your story.

How to get that first, small grant? Get good at setting goals

I support Stephen Covey’s advice of “always begin with the end in mind.” In other words, be goal-oriented. In many cases, libraries think of the “goal” as being “get this collection digitized and online.” Wrong! That’s not a goal, that’s one activity or tactic. Grant makers are interested in goals that emphasize benefits to the communities and people they support. You need to relate your project to their goals. Here are some tips on how to get that thought process started. Work with your colleagues and supervisors to identify:

  • The benefits the program will have to your library
  • The audiences you will reach in the community
  • Benefits to the community—think “before and after” when describing
  • Measurements of those benefits
  • What success looks like at different times along the way
  • What next steps will take your goals even further

For every partner involved, it’s important to have an idea of what success means to them.

As you go through the proposal process, take what you learn from each grant application and put it toward the next grant application. It’s also important to share your successes with other libraries. That will help them in their grant-applying process as well as help you receive future grants.

When you’re ready to ask for that first, small grant

It’s smart to start by looking for grants that don’t require matching funding, since that would essentially double your work. Are there local foundations that support efforts like this? Maybe your state library has a digitization program? The Indiana Memory Digitization Grant guidelines are a good example.

There are many resources to help you with this process. Sometimes, the granting organization even provides resources for writing a winning grant application. Here are some examples that give you an idea of how to proceed:

Whatever your “dream project” may be, starting small is honestly the best first step. It will give you insight into the grant-making process, help you refine goals for all participants and establish a successful track record for your library.

Question: What’s the smallest digitization project you could get a grant for? Be creative, and let us know on Twitter with #OCLCnext.