Grant writing can be intimidating for the inexperienced artist. Asking for money to support projects is stressful, especially when factoring in the reality that thousands of other creatives are competing for these same funds on their projects. Don’t despair! Take a deep breath and settle in to take notes on our top tips on how to write effective, compelling grant applications.
When Grant Writing, Do Your Homework
This may sound obvious, but many grant proposals are rejected because they fail to read and follow the grant requirements. Don’t fall into this simple trap! Especially if you are submitting a complex application, comb over the details to help you to see if you are following all the instructions and not missing a deadline
First, understanding the granting organization’s mission is crucial. All granting organizations and foundations have a mission statement, usually posted on their website. Additionally, most organizations will have information about their scope of activities, plans, and projects. Comb through and align your language with the mission and guidelines appropriately. A quick tip: reviewing a list of past recipients is one of the best ways to determine whether your project is a good fit for their funding priorities before you put all the effort into writing a grant proposal.
Common elements that make up an artist grant proposal include an artist statement, a project statement, a portfolio and/or work sample, and a budget. It’s important to note that of all of these, the budget is usually the most important factor. Your budget will indicate to the committee whether or not you have a realistic grasp picture of the project scope. For example, if the project requires special materials or fabrication, receiving a quote on these aspects of the project in advance will help argue your case. While emerging artists can generally expect less funding than well-established artists, asking for too little can also be a red flag if the funds requested are not sufficient to meet the project requirements.
Finally, make sure you save all materials submitted in the grant proposal. Keeping good records will also help remind you that writing effective grant proposals is a process. Over time, you can revisit older grant proposals and borrow relevant language, while also observing just how much your applications have improved.
Play the Long Game
As an emerging artist, you may be full of potential, but you have yet to prove it. At this stage, it is easy to underestimate yourself. Confidence is key to mastering the grant writing process, but at the same time, be sure to revise and ask for advice from more experienced grant writers where possible! Have a realistic, yet positive, view of your skillset. As Simon Rodia said in his 1961 visitors pamphlet for The Watts Towers, “You have to be good-good or bad-bad to be remembered.” Rodia himself did not seek grants to begin his monumental public work: he just went out and did it. Approach your grant applications with grit and determination, and you’re well on your way to mastering the skills needed to succeed at grant writing.
Not every opportunity will take you down the right path. Funding priorities shift and change, as do selection committees. Many artists will apply to the same organization year after year, so keep your head up and play the long game. Trust your intuition and stay true to yourself.
Continually Improve Your Grant Proposals
Having a career as an artist requires a lot of soft skills: personal attributes that enable you to interact and succeed professionally. For artists, these skills can vary widely. Curiosity and resilience are key soft skills for an artist. Remember that there is more than one path to reach a destination, and you do not need to compare yourself to others to capitalize on your strengths when “selling” your art project. Instead, work on communicating what unique aspects you incorporate into your art-making through your distinct voice.
Writing mind-blowing grant proposals is a hard skill that takes time to master. If it is daunting to submit your first grant proposal, try to begin with a level-headed approach. Express your personality and your practice on the page as much as you can. Grant writing is a special form of writing, but it doesn’t have to be especially academic. Grant committees are sympathetic to artists; above all, they want to understand where you are coming from and what you are trying to communicate with your work. This message can get lost if you are being too verbose or cryptic. William Zinsser’s classic book of non-fiction writing, On Writing Well, can help you improve your writing skills if needed.
Know Thyself When Grant Writing
Know your practice well when writing a grant proposal. Focus and be attuned to what makes your artistic approach unique, and also to understand your relationship to the artistic traditions you are engaging with. Being unique is a paradox. While it is true we are all unique, we can get too absorbed with expressing our unique viewpoints. Follow the adage, “show don’t tell.” Telling someone you are unique is not the same as demonstrating it in your grant application. As an emerging artist, the bulk of your material comprising your grant writing should come from details about exploring your early experiences, such as life experiences that play a key factor in your art, identifying mentors or influences, and describing the technical processes involved in making your work. Try to make this information as specific as possible. Stay away from general concepts. Tell the story behind what it is that really is unique to you.
The grant manager, or the person who organizes the application submission process on the organizational side, firmly understands how a grant represents an organization’s mission. Some grants will specifically list a contact, but if not, you can find this person by contacting the organization. If parts of the grant application are unclear to you, do not hesitate to contact the grant manager. Make sure you prepare your questions ahead of time.
Most grant managers are happy to answer basic questions. At smaller organizations, they will often go a step further. If a grant manager is willing to spend some time with you then, it doesn’t hurt to ask if you can run a proposal by them to learn more about if it matches current funding priorities. Taking this extra step can drastically improve the chances of your application.
If you receive notice that you did do not get the grant, don’t hesitate to ask for feedback. Some organizations keep notes of the grant committee’s comments and will provide them upon request. Otherwise, the grant manager may be able to give you some direction. If you do get the grant and have the opportunity to work with the organization, you should also still ask for feedback. You might inquire about what made your proposal stand out to the granting organization.
Viewing the grant writing and submission process as an ongoing quest for information rather than a do-or-die situation will keep you stay calm and clearheaded, soft skills that in the long run enhance your chance for success.
Have any tried and true methods that have worked for you when grant writing? Any notable tips for artists writing grant proposals for the first time?
Erin Sickler is a mindfulness & creativity coach living in the Hudson Valley. A former NY art curator, she has worked with some of the world’s most successful living artists and now writes about expanded modes of being on the creative path.