Playing the Odds with Voya's Unsung Heroes K-12 Grants

The Voya Foundation (formerly the ING Foundation) is the philanthropic arm of Voya Financial (formerly ING Financial). Despite the name changes, the foundation remains committed to supporting K-12 education. And, in fact, the name of its signature program for doing so remains the same. It's called the Unsung Heroes Awards Program.

Through this program, the Voya Foundation gives out 100 K-12 education grants each year. The money goes directly to educators working in schools (public or private) for innovative, creative, impactful projects that make use of "new teaching methods and techniques that improve learning." These $2000 cash grants are given to 97 finalists. Third, second, and first place winners receive $7,000, $12,000 and $27,000 respectively.

The foundation is committed to giving money in all 50 states and the District of Columbia through its Unsung Heroes Awards Program, provided an application is generated in that state. And here's where scoping out your competition could come in handy. The Voya Foundation posts all of its current finalists and biggest winners on its website. You can sort these winning educators, schools, and projects by state, and make some educated guesses about your own chances.

A red flag alert if you're in Alaska or Montana: There were no 2014 winners in either of these states. Zero. None. Nada. Given the Voya Foundation's stated committment to give everywhere, this means that in 2014, no one applied in either of these states. Alaska and Montana educators, get on it now for next year's application. Chances are that your competiton will be slim to none.

Now for some simple math. One hundred grants to give out equals an average of essentially two per state (again, plus the District of Columbia) if the foundation were to disperse them evenly. That's not the directive, and we know it's not even mathematically true, since two states didn't participate (Alaska! Montana!) but it's a good baseline to consider if you're looking to assess where the most and least competition may potentially exist.

Twenty-one states had only one winner, meaning their yields were "below theoretical average." To be clear, this in no way means the finalists in these states (there were no top-three winners here) aren't home to incredibly worthy projects. But it could be an indicator that there's less competition and/or applications in these parts of the country. These one-and-done states for 2014 were: Arkansas, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

On the other end of the spectrum, two states garnered five grants apiece: New York and Pennsylvania (again, only finalists, no top-three finishers). Four other states nabbed four grants each: California, Illinois, South Carolina, and Texas. Illinois' grants included the first-place winner. Texas' grants included the third-place winner. Consider all of these states competitive, but also take heart: Clearly, the Voya Foundation is comfortable spreading a lot of grants around these locations.

Again, this isn't a rock-solid mathematical model by any means. But it does give you a guidepost for how you might position yourself if you apply for an Unsung Hero grant this coming April and beyond.