Students in the class learn how to write a grant proposal for the nonprofit organization they're partnered with.

Grant Writing for Agencies — a course offered at JMU — awards two nonprofit organizations $3,500 each in grant money each year.

Cross listed as Social Work (SOWK) 375, Nonprofit Services (NPS) 375 and Gerontology (GERN) 375 students learn about grant writing, then partner up to write and submit their own grant proposal — a narrative document that explains what an organization’s needs are, how it plans to meet those needs and how it would use funds to meet those needs — for their assigned nonprofit organization. Two pairs of students are chosen as winners at the end of the course and are awarded money, funded by the Learning by Giving Foundation, to go toward the assigned nonprofits.

The course is offered once a year, typically in the spring, and has roughly 25-40 students per class. While the course is open to all majors, most students are nonprofit studies, gerontology or social work majors or minors.

Laura Trull, associate professor of social work who has a background in nonprofit organizations, has taught Grant Writing for Agencies for the past five years and said she’s written millions of dollars in grant proposals herself.

Trull said there are 13 agencies and nonprofit organizations participating in the course this semester, ranging from services in healthcare, childcare, music, refugee help, education, food, clothing, housing and more.

Trull said she emails roughly 100 nonprofit agencies and organizations within a 50-mile radius of JMU before the semester begins, stating that if they want to be involved in the course, they must send a letter back by a certain date. By the time the letters start coming in, Trull said, the class has started and students have begun narrowing down the list of organizations they want to partner with through interest surveys. Trull said there are numerous agencies and organizations who participate in the course every year, but that it’s a very competitive selection. 

Sophomore Zoe McQuade and junior Laura Duffett — both social work majors — said students were able to “pref” their top three agencies, then got partnered up with one agency based on their interests and the agencies they ranked. McQuade said they were also able to write down organizations they didn’t want to be partnered up with and couldn’t “pref” any agencies they already volunteered at or were affiliated with. To decide partners for the class, McQuade said students filled out a survey that asked their skills and strengths — such as creativity and strong writing skills — and what skills they wanted their partners to have, such as organization or natural leadership. They were assigned partners based on those results.

In the past, Trull said, agencies have used the grant money to install ramps to help make homes for older adults more accessible, put in new flooring in a daycare center, create printed literature and buy adaptive equipment for sensory rooms for children with disabilities.

Duffett said she and her partner are working with Church World Service, a refugee resettlement agency in Harrisonburg that provides different services for refugee families in the community like setting them up with a job and helping them find housing.

Duffett said Church World Service is developing a Services for Older Refugees (SOR), a program for older refugees in which they’re able to bond with each other for a sense of community and learn English together. Duffett said if she and her partner win the grant money for Church World Service, the money would help offset the costs of enrollment into the SOR program for older refugees. Church World Service was one of the three organizations Duffett ranked, she said.

“I’m very passionate about refugees, especially in this area,” Duffett. “There’s a lot of immigrants and a lot of refugees who oftentimes do get overlooked. I just really [want] to be able to give them a voice, too, in this community and create a friendlier environment and capacity that can help them integrate into Harrisonburg.”

McQuade and her partner, on the other hand, are working with the Page Free Clinic in Luray, Virginia, that operates every Tuesday from 4 to 7 p.m. The clinic provides medical services to those who don’t otherwise have access to affordable healthcare services, according to its website. McQuade said Page Free Clinic provides women’s health care, basic lab work and referrals to dental agencies, among other services.

Ben Dowelski (’10), a JMU alumnus and the executive director of Page Free Clinic, said this is the agency’s first year participating in the program.

“We’ve always had an affiliation with [JMU],” Dowelski said. “We definitely wanted to be supportive and collaborative … [and] we’d definitely like to be a regular.”

If McQuade and her partner win the grant money for Page Free Clinic, Dowelski said it’ll go toward the agency’s Remote Access Medical (RAM) Clinic on July 9-10 at Luray High School — a free event that’ll provide medical, dental and vision screening for people who can’t afford it. Dowelski said that while the event is free for patients, it’ll cost the Page Free Clinic $40,000 for expenses like medical supplies, food and shelter for the volunteers.

“Anytime we get that there’s potential grant help for some of the funding, that’s definitely of interest,” Dowelski said.

Even if Page Free Clinic isn’t the recipient of the grant money, Dowelski said the course is beneficial for the agency because they’re able to help provide students with the experience of collaboration with nonprofit organizations. The course has also helped increase the visibility of the clinic, Dowelski said.

“We definitely have the capacity to grow,” Dowelski said. “Even if we’re not selected, this will help people become more aware of the services we provide.”

Dowelski said Page Free Clinic’s participation in the course has been a positive experience and that he’s “glad to be a part of it.”

“There’s a lot of good work going on,” Dowelski said. “Sometimes it’s a shame to see that we need free clinics and things to provide to patients who can’t afford it or folks who can’t afford housing. I’m glad people are taking an interest and looking for funding to give back to the community.”

The class is student-led and student-driven, Trull said, and utilizes shared leadership.

“The students are responsible for this whole experience,” Trull said. “Whenever it’s possible for me to have them make the decision, they make the decision.”

Trull said the class uses a committee structure in which everyone takes on different roles — which students sign up for — including committees for communications, requests for proposals (RFPs), letters of intent, scoring and awarding, posters, blogs and planning the awards ceremony.

McQuade and Duffett are both on the communications committee. Duffett said the class is “very different from other classes” because it’s hands-on and the students decide on how they want it to be run.

Trull said students take on the role of partnering with agencies to develop a grant proposal for the fund and then act as the funding organization that reviews all proposals and awards the winners. The students, not Trull, are the ones who decide the winning pairs and respective organizations at the end of the semester.

Students in the scoring and awarding committee develop a way for students to vote on their classmates’ proposals, eliminating conflicts of interest and bias while students vote.

Duffett said each student is assigned roughly five other proposals to read and score, and that they’re not allowed to read or score their own. While the scoring and awarding committee comes up with the scoring process, the whole class gets to vote.

Trull said she believes this course is beneficial for students because they’re able to control their experience with the class, learn practical skills and gain a marketable skill set.

“[Students] frequently tell me this is their favorite class they’ve ever taken,” Trull said. “More than 90% of the time, students identify that if they walked into a job the next day and they said, ‘We need you to work on this grant proposal,’ they feel like they would be able to do so with confidence.”

Trull said she likes that the course allows her to watch students step up and grow into leadership positions.

“I really like the way I’ve been able to craft [this class] to be in their hands as much as possible,” Trull said. “A lot of times they ask me questions and I just stare at them and say, ‘Well this isn’t my call’ … I’ll say, ’I don’t know, what do you want to do, what do you think?’ I really love [teaching] a class that enables me to do that.”

While the course mainly focuses on leadership and creating meaningful skill sets, Trull said grades in the class include a series of quizzes, benchmarks, creating a poster, writing a blog post, a presentation, the grant proposal and a reflection of how the committees followed through on their duties.

The grant proposals — due April 18 — are 30% of the students’ final grades and are scored on a rubric created by the scoring and awarding committee on items like the quality of writing, adequate budget, adequate history and how important the agency is to the community.

McQuade said the grant proposals have a maximum of six pages and that most pairs started writing their proposals after coming back from spring break.

“[The grant proposal] requires a lot of out-of-class work and communication with professionals in the area [that are] in the nonprofit sector,” McQuade said.

Duffett said she signed up for Grant Writings for Agencies because she believes grant writing is a good skill to have, especially if she works with nonprofit organizations after graduation, which she said she’s interested in.

“I would definitely recommend this class,” Duffett said. “It is a lot of work and it can be frustrating at times, but it also teaches you a lot of really good skills.”

McQuade said she thinks Grant Writings for Agencies is an important class because it educates people on nonprofits and how they function on a financial level.

“I was interested in being in a class that makes a real tangible effect on the community, where the work you do in the class isn’t just busy work, but more of actually making a difference to an agency,” McQuade said.

The two pairs of students who win the grant money for their nonprofit organizations will be announced April 25 in the Grant Writings for Agencies class.

Contact Kasey Trapuzzano at For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.