The stakes for arts funding in Australia have never been so high. Unfortunately, neither has the competition. In solidarity with friends, colleagues, clients and organisations who have lost or are in fear for their livelihoods, here are some of my top tips on how to write and submit great arts grant applications.
Resilience and readiness
Even with the new opportunities appearing in response to COVID-19 (C19), it’s important to remember that there will always be more people applying than there are grants or opportunities available. This means even worthy and wonderfully-written applications can miss out.
We all need to protect ourselves within this highly competitive environment. This can include preparing ourselves for rejection, not putting all our eggs into one basket (by applying for more than one opportunity at a time), or putting off applying until we feel ready.
Relevance and research
It’s important to find the right grant or opportunity to suit our ideas or circumstances, not the other way around.
Check out the following resources:
- Artshub’s COVID-19 coverage
- Funding Centre’s list of assistance for organisations affected by C19
- Australia Council’s coronavirus updates
- Your State or Territory arts funder
Do your research (and read it properly). Make sure you’re eligible and that your idea fits the selection criteria. Are you in the right state? Working in the right artform? In the right stage of your career? Does your project fit within the guidelines of what they’ll support?
The best applications come from people who have clearly thought deeply about the opportunity before they apply. Near enough isn’t good enough. Around 30% of applications aren’t eligible to be considered at all. Don’t waste everybody’s time – including your own – by applying for something they can’t support.
If you’re not sure about something, ASK. Most funders have grants officers whose job it is to answer questions. Grant officers usually don’t make decisions, but are often in the room when decisions are made. You start making an impression even before your application arrives, so try to make sure you’re remembered in the right way.
When you contact a grant officer, be polite and be prepared. And try not to ask for an extension – they won’t be able to give you one, and you’ll just seem disorganised.
Be as clear as you can
What you say and how you say it are both important factors for success. Panels can read dozens or hundreds of almost-identical applications each round. Panel fatigue is real, but you combat it by:
- Being compliant – giving them what they want, how they want it.
- Using simple, plain English.
- Being clear and detailed about who you are and what you want to do.
- Making convincing arguments.
- Explaining what the grant will do (and why it won’t happen without it)
- Mirroring their language.
- Being professional.
And NOT by:
- Using jargon or being too academic (arts-speak can alienate).
- Using gimmicks (just because it’s a creative project doesn’t mean they want a ‘creative’ application – there is never an excuse for Comic Sans, glitter, or applying in rhyme).
- Playing the pity card (it’s unhelpful and unfair).
- Trying to be funny (humour is subjective).
- Being too boastful (applications are no place for false claims).
- Being too humble (applications are no place for modesty either).
Sell yourself and your idea
The panel will be looking at:
- WHO you are – your experience, reputation or track record (make sure your bio or artist statement is targeted, up-to-date and easy to understand).
- WHY YOU should be chosen – your angle, what it is that makes you, your work or your idea unique or special.
- WHAT you want to do – the strength and relevance of your idea, what you will do / where / when / and for who.
- WHY you want to do it – the need that you’re addressing, what you are trying to achieve.
- WHY you want to do it NOW – what makes your idea timely or urgent.
- HOW you’re going to do it – viability, logistics, timeline and budget.
- WHO ELSE is involved or believes in you – your partners or support letters (this is particularly important if you’re just starting out and need to borrow a reputation while still developing your own).
Viability, logistics and timeline
This is one of the key failings of funding applications. Even if you have the best idea, you won’t get a ‘yes’ unless they believe you can deliver it.
Your delivery plan should lay out all the steps of what will happen, when and where. Your timeline should be realistic, not impressive.
Think about scale and how learning can be shared. Panels will not only be interested in the impact on your own career, but also on any direct participants or the broader sector.
Make sure what you ask for fits their guidelines of what the money can be spent on. Most funders don’t accept applications for things that have already happened (retrospective funding). Many are sticklers for artists being paid appropriate rates, but some differ in how much you can pay yourself. If in doubt, ask.
Funders like to see that they’re not the only organisation contributing to a project. If you can, include other sources of income. This could include other confirmed or unconfirmed grants (though be clear about which funder is support which part of your project so as not to appear reliant on that other funding), sales of tickets or work, your own cash contribution, or non-cash contributions that you or your partners will offer in-kind.
Make sure your budget balances (seriously). Make sure in-kind support is listed in both ‘Income’ and ‘Expenditure’ columns. And make sure your budget breaks even, not makes a profit.
Supportive support material
Nearly all funders will ask for some sort of support material. This may include: examples of successful projects, your previous work, or what you’re working on now, testimonials, letters of support or letters of confirmation.
Some will say that this is optional, but it’s an important part of making yourself as competitive as possible. Make sure you give them the correct amount of relevant, good quality materials in the format they ask for. If you send in weblinks, make sure they work.
When it comes to letters of support:
- The more, the better (within their guidelines).
- The more targeted they are to a specific opportunity, the better.
- The more different they are from each other, the better (no form letters).
- Ask people for their letters as early as possible, and make it as easy for them as you can. Send a short, clear email with your request, a one or two-sentence description of the opportunity, and the date you need their letter back from them. You may also want to send a few draft paragraphs to help get them started.
Proof read and polish
Once applications are submitted, there’s no opportunity to fix any typos or add missing information. Proof read. Read it out loud. Ask a friend to read it through. Re-read the grant information to make sure you’ve answered the questions and mirrored their language. Proof read it again.
Submit (on time)
Submit your application early or on time (to avoid submission issues or system crashes). In most cases, late applications go straight in the bin, so don’t waste your own time.
Be patient and optimistic (but realistic too)
Different funders work in different ways and with different timelines. Try to be patient while you wait.
You might get funded, you might not, but what happens next can impact whether you get funded next time. Australia’s arts sector is hugely interconnected. Your reputation (good or bad) can precede you. Mind your reputation – and your manners.
If you’re successful, don’t break the news before it’s out of embargo. Don’t rub it in. Make sure you know your obligations and carry them out.
If you’re unsuccessful, don’t throw a tantrum. Don’t send an ALL CAPS email. And try not to be disheartened. Take the feedback on board and have another go.
About the writer
Kate Larsen is a Non-profit & Cultural Consultant with more than 20 years’ experience as a leader and senior executive in the non-profit, government and cultural sectors in Australia, Asia and the United Kingdom.
Kate will be speaking on funding inclusions at Defining the New Normal: a virtual global fundraising summit for arts, cultural and heritage professionals in August 2020.
If you need some grant writing or editing support or advice, please get in touch.
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