Smith will be in Washington May 28 to 30 conduct a workshop at American University on grant-getting in the 1980s. The cost is $185 for three days, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information call The Support Center at 232-0100.

The world abounds with frustrated artists, social reformers and inventors who merits go unnoticed as they paint houses, shuffle papers, or aid in someone else's experiment.

But for almost every innovative idea there is probably a federal agency or corporation willing to lend support through that elusive little boon: The Grant. Billions of dollars are spent each year funding nonprofit groups and projects conceived of in the "public interest."

There is, however, a justifiable wariness about funding something that's going to garner one of Sen. William Proxmire's "Golden Fleece" awards. And getting through to a receptive ear has evolved into a complicated process, made up of specific formulas and a complex set of relationships.

To simplify the grants game, Craig Smith, director of Grantspeople Inc., conducts seminars throughout the country on a practical approach to grant-getting. He has so far trained about 3,000 people in the art of grantsmanship.

Founded four years ago, Smith's Colorado-based training and research organization works with both funders and grant seekers to match up particular needs, and "to bring about improvements on how things work."

Smith estimates that there are more than 30,000 potential federal, state and private sources willing to provide funding for scientific research, social programs or artistic endeavor. Although the money for each project may vary, there are specific guidelines that each grant-seeker must follow to turn a dream into a fundable reality.

Smith, 34, says he believes "the grants person" is often an organization's "agent of new possibilities." Talented individuals are given more freedom to develop innovative ideas.

"But it's not just a matter of writing a letter," he stresses. "You must reshape your ideas."

By the time the grant-seeker is ready to write a proposal for funding, he says, the project may turn out to be radically different from the original idea. Hence, the painful first step: making a dream into a "fundable" idea.

In the new book, "Getting Grants" (Harper & Row, 286 pages, $12.95), coauthored by Smith, he cites some imaginative grants projects. Among them is the story of a small group of ecologists who observed that loggers in the Northwest threw away the chunky remanants of the native hardwoods. The ecologists secured $145,000 in CETA funds to show how marketable products such as chairs, tables, mirror frames, toys, tool handles and grain mills could be made of the scraps.

Another example: A West Coast school district had problems getting its third graders to concentrate on basic skills -- and, Smith points out, the local artists were starving. A $250,000 grant from the U.S. Office of Education and local private foundations created Poetry Playhouse, a program that brought actors and poets into the classroom to dramatize poetry. The logic was that the same enthusiasm the students showed toward the program could be applied to lessons.

The search for an obliging backer usually begins in the library, and in most cases, with the "Catalogue of Federal and Domestic Assistance," a voluminous resource book considered the grant-seeker's Bible.

"Everybody writes to the National Endowment for the Arts for their grant," says Smith, who includes pinpointing grant resources as part of his workshop curriculum. "That can be narrowed down."

Developing relationships with funders and others willing to help with a particular project is an essential part of grants-getting, says Smith. In many cases, a successful grant is the result of winning the support of a person with expertise in the project which is being funded. Furthermore, project directors may wish to recruit volunteers, providing them with valuable experience and the project with additional assistance.

Ultimately, there is the proposal, a written document of intention that can be as brief as three pages and as lengthy as 300, but usually averaging about 20. Writing the proposal can be a complicated task, requiring forms, contracts, budgets, charts and appendices.

Smith compares the proposal writer with a trial attorney trying to persuade the jury to decide in his client's favor.

During Smith's three-day workshop, participants are asked to research and write a proposal, create a filing system of resources, and to play the roles of funder and grant-seeker.

The most essential part of the process, Smith says, is enthusiasm -- a conviciton strong enough to see an idea through to the final product. Grant seekers too often fall victim to what Smith calls "conceivers disease" -- an uninterrupted stream of ingenious grant project possibilities, none of which ever gets implemented.