What is a MAD Grant?
MAD Grants are small grants ($25 - $1,000) designed to fund projects that aren't normally covered by the traditional funding mechanisms. Educators in Portland Public Schools (Oregon) and the Highline School District (Washington) are eligible to apply.
There is no "typical" MAD Grant. Take a look at past awards and you'll see a very broad range of projects -- from marimbas to tarantulas to RC planes to DNA test kits.
Each fall, educators in Portland and Highline schools are invited to give us their craziest ideas to help their students learn. Often, the ideas come from the students, themselves, or parents or volunteers. (Note: Applications must come from an educator.) We review the applications, announce the winners around Thanksgiving, and award the funds at the beginning of January. The funds must be used during the current school year.
At the end of the year, each recipient provides a quick report on how the funds were used.
We try to make the process as simple as possible.
How did MAD Grants begin?
MAD Grants come from Chris Blumenthal, a graduate of Grant High School in Portland, OR (1981) and Nanci Tangeman, a graduate of Mt. Rainier High School in Des Moines, WA (1979). We started MAD Grants in 2002 after Chris heard a radio story about a couple in Boston who had started a grant program for teachers in their school district as a way to give back to their community.
Right away, we decided that we’d like to do something similar. We both believe that a strong public school system touches not only the lives of its students, but the entire community and infrastructure around it. A grant program sounded like a good way to direct our charitable contributions.
That was a relatively easy decision. Deciding where to contribute wasn’t so cut and dried. We don’t have children of our own and we hadn’t lived in the US for several years. So we decided to focus our support on our two childhood school districts: Portland Public Schools in Oregon (Chris) and Highline School District 401 in Washington (Nanci).
Why, specifically, grants?
There are so many programs and opportunities that just aren’t funded any more – especially in the Highline and Portland districts. Arts programs, field trips and student newspapers are just a few activities that don’t seem to have an appropriate level of funding. In addition to these “extras,” the diversity of the school populations has changed so that new programs need funding. The smallest items (books, calculators, museum entry fees) are out of reach to many of the students in the district.
The bottom line is that we believe educators are digging into their own pockets to fund projects or they are foregoing opportunities altogether because of lack of funds.
We could have contributed to a general education charity or even to a political cause promising to focus on education, but that wasn't where we wanted to contribute. We wanted to get closer to the teachers and also feel a connection to the community. We hope that by providing small grants, we can MAKE A DIFFERENCE to the lives of these educators and their students.
Who decides how the contributions are directed?
We’re not experts. We want our contributions to go where the educators need them. So we devised a simple grant process that allows educators to state what they need and why. After we’ve read the applications from both school districts and we’ve chosen the recipients, we work with the Portland Schools Foundation and the Highline Schools Foundation for Excellence to get the funds into the educators’ hands.
Is there something specific you fund?
Well, the name says a lot: MAD Grants. Over the years, its meaning has evolved. At first, we encouraged teachers to apply for grants in areas that were just making them mad, as in angry. For instance, we paid to move a piano from one floor to another where it was needed, when the school couldn't afford it. Our intent, though, has always been to fund mad (as in crazy) ideas, and that is where the emphasis has grown. We want to fund those ideas coming from teachers who say, "It's crazy to think we could afford to do this, but could you imagine the results if we did?" This year, especially, we are looking for creative ideas. Often those ideas are projects that wouldn't necessarily fall under special Arts or Science grant programs, for instance. And, of course, we also have our acronym, M-A-D, for "making a difference." Does the project really make a difference to the students?
A note to applicants from the Highline School District: Although our grant program runs concurrently with the Excel and McGeehan Fund for the Arts grant programs, and you may use the same applications for all three, keep in mind that we are specifically looking for MAD ideas. If you think the creativity behind your idea is what's going to sell it the best -- or if you're specifically aiming for a MAD Grant -- don't forget to stress that in your application.
What has MAD Grants awarded thus far?
During the program’s first nine years, 2002 - 2011, we received 1,180 applications. Out of those, more than 170 projects were funded. Grants have been awarded in the areas of Math, Genetics, Music, Art History, ELL, Reading, Environmental Studies, College Exploration, Journalism, Science, Horticulture, Physical Education, Technology… A complete list of the winning projects, as well as updates on their progress, can be found on this website. For the 2006 – 2007 school year, we contributed directly to the school foundations and they directed our funds.
Are there things that MAD Grants won't fund?
Although we don’t have any hard and fast rules about what we do and don’t fund, it might help to know what we haven’t funded in the past. If there are many requests for the same item or program, that usually means we have to say “no,” only because if we said “yes” to one, we’d have to say “yes” to all, depleting our limited funds. Examples of this include 10+ requests for monitors to use with a new closed-circuit TV system for one particular school and for several similar field trips. One year we had duplicate requests for books to meet a new state program that was mandated without a budget for materials. In that case, we didn’t feel it was our place to step in where the state stepped out. We would rather fund a specialized library or something specific, like atlases. We don’t fund meal or clothing programs for low-income students. We would rather fund a field trip where students ride public transportation instead of eating up our funds by hiring school buses, but we realize that’s not always possible. We rarely provide funds for extra staffing.
Having said that, there are exceptions to all of these situations when they are part of an extraordinary idea or opportunity.
Will the program be expanded to other school districts?
No. With such a limited budget, we thought that it would be best to focus on our own school districts - where we graduated. In Portland this is sometimes confusing. Our grants are available only in the Portland School District, not all Portland area schools. The best way to expand this program is to encourage other graduates to adopt similar programs in their own school districts. Spread the word!
Are you a registered charity or charitable trust?
No. We have looked into establishing MAD Grants as a non-profit corporation or charitable foundation. However, at this point, the legal fees and tax filing responsibilities are too onerous to make it practical. After selecting the winning projects, we make a lump sum donation to the Highline Schools Foundation for Excellence and the Portland Schools Foundation who, in turn, distribute the funds within their districts. When possible, we've used corporate matching gift programs, such as the Boeing Gift Matching Program, to increase our donations to these foundations.
How can I contribute?
If you are interested in helping MAD Grants or setting up a similar program in your area, please let us know by e-mail. Our addresses are listed on the contacts page. Or, you can contact the school foundation in your area directly. The key is -- if you want to support your local schools, you CAN find a way to do it -- even if you start out by funding only one grant! If you are an educator, please tell us what you think about MAD Grants and tell us how we can improve the process.