Feature Stories

Small seed grants from OCEP lead to over $235,000 in grant proposals written by USF students for local non-profits

As the proliferation of not-for-profits makes the process of seeking funding as challenging as maintaining strong programming, one USF instructor is doing her part to teach students how to write strong and persuasive grant proposals for local organizations.

Johanna Phelps Hillen (right) and her mentor Dr. Julie Staggers

       Johanna Phelps Hillen (right) and her mentor Dr. Julie Staggers

Johanna Phelps-Hillen is one the Office of Community Engagement and Partnership's (OCEP) rising stars. Her dedication to elevating the quality of community engaged learning has already earned her two ("OCEP") service-learning grants herself, one for course development (a graduate student research fellowship) and one for incidental costs enabling her to facilitate the service-learning aspects of the course.

OCEP supports faculty in the development of community engaged learning—an approach that address community identified concerns and requires the participation of community partners in the design and execution of a service-learning course so that the students' work provides meaningful benefits to the community partners. Johanna chose to develop her new course with Ashley Powe, Director of Operations for Embracing Legacy. Embracing Legacy is a youth empowerment organization founded by Pastor Greg Powe after a sixteen-year-old boy shot and killed a police officer; Pastor Powe wanted to address the cycles of violence that too often plague our cities. Embracing Legacy's stated guiding philosophy is: "If we can put a trumpet in a child's hand before someone puts a gun in it, we can save a family."

Together, Johanna and Ashley created a dynamic course that met the needs of the USF Technical Writing program to prepare future grant writers, while simultaneously benefitting Ashley's organization, Embracing Legacy, with valuable grant writing services. By the end of the fall semester, students presented two completed grant applications, valued at approximately $40,000 to support the organization's programming. In total, five teams of students in the course developed grants for Embracing Legacy as well as for the CDC of Tampa, Friends of the Riverwalk, and CAN-DO, adding up to $235,972 in requested funding.

Students, faculty, and community partners who worked collaboratively on grants during the fall semester.

"I get a lot of validation from the work that I do," said Johanna, who will be completing her PhD in Rhetoric and Composition in the English Department as well as a Master's Degree in Public Administration by May 2017. Following an e-mail introduction by Visiting Instructor Dr. Vernetta Williams, Johanna solidified the partnership with Ashley, at one of OCEP's "match-up" events, which are designed to bring faculty and community partners together in order to discuss and develop mutually beneficial projects in a supportive and collegial environment. Johanna continued, "[Ashley] cares an unreal amount about her constituents" and has expanded the capacity of Embracing Legacy by over 25% in recent months even in the midst of maternity leave for her first child.

"OCEP played a huge role in this," Johanna reflected, referring to the match-up events, course development support and guidance, and financial support. Johanna is relatively new to Tampa and said that when she was planning the course she did not yet have the strong community connections established to be able to create a class like this. "It's a pretty big investment to send students out to do this work," Johanna noted. Additionally, she had to trust the relationship building process would result in a reciprocal exchange of knowledge and resources—including the unique knowledge and resources of her community partners who would be relied upon to share the necessary information, data, and direction to the students so they could develop solid grant applications.

"The matchmaking event was really important because e-mail is one thing, but it's amazing what happens – everything just opens up – when you meet face-to-face," said Johanna. "OCEP legitimized and facilitated a lot of what I wanted to do, and for that I am indebted," she continued. Moreover, she stated, "I really appreciated the freedom to explore and to choose the partners with whom I wanted to work."

By the time of OCEP's next match-up event, in October 2014, Johanna and Ashley had forged such a strong connection that they were able to share their experiences for the benefit of other faculty and community organizations looking to work together in a mutually beneficial way.

Collaboration and trust are keys to building meaningful and effective partnerships between faculty and the community outside the university. For Johanna's course, the students needed to be able to turn in actual grant proposals by the end of the semester so that partner organizations could submit the proposals to prestigious funding entities ranging from the National Endowment for the Arts, Fifth Third Bank, Wells Fargo, the Kresge Foundation, and the 4 Girls Foundation.

Ashley Powe, Janett Pulido, and Cherrise Wilkes and other students.

                               Ashley Powe, Janett Pulido, and Cherrise Wilkes and other students.

During their final presentations to their classmates and community partners, the students raved about the richness of their experiences during the semester. For them, this was an early foray into developing professional relationships with community organizations. Half of the class did not have previous work experience to draw upon, so the opportunity to learn about not-for-profit management with the guidance from Johanna and the community partners was an important step in their professional development. One said, "I'm used to sending one hundred texts a day, but professional e-mails were sometimes difficult."

The students also had to learn to balance their inclination to ask for as much funding as possible with the need to ensure that the organization had the capacity to provide the services for which they would be receiving funding—another valuable and important lesson that will hold them in good stead for their professional lives. They also developed the ability to work collaboratively with one another and their community partners on a major project with very firm deadlines. One student confessed, "It was raining drafts!"

The team working with Julie Rocco, Special Projects Manager at the CDC, thought she was an outstanding mentor to them. One student from Rocco's team, Javon Pringley shared, "I think we probably had the best partner, even though she is not here [in the classroom today], she's with us in spirit, she's actually right here," as he gestured to one side.

Julie, who also serves as a grant writer for the CDC, shared the sentiment and was thrilled with the result of the course. She said, "The notion of expanding the breadth of my expertise to reach students striving to align their writing talents with a passion to make the world a better place was rewarding. Their hunger to learn, coupled with their decision to aim for broad community impact, served as the catalyst for producing a phenomenal grant that will be used for the application to the Kresge Foundation as well as other funding opportunities. I remain grateful for the opportunity to have CDC of Tampa, Inc. serve the community in a new and innovative manner."

Johanna ended the semester by praising her students: "You have blown me away and set the bar high" for future iterations of the course, which she hopes to offer annually. She said, the "students are making connections that impact their ability to complete their degree and get a job," she continued, "if that is in a not-for-profit, I will be very happy." Indeed, service-learning is the most impactful of the high-impact teaching practices, according to the Association of American Colleges & Universities.

For her part, Ashley concluded: "It was a joy working with Johanna with USF's English Department on the Grant Writing Service-Learning Collaboration. If given the opportunity, I would partner with USF and Johanna again!"