Application form questions usually follow similar formats with most funders. The following tips will help you create a great grant ‘narrative’.
READ the whole application…and then read it again: Probably the most important thing in applying for grants is the importance of READING the application questions, and understanding what they mean – don’t assume or ignore. This seems like a very obvious thing to say, but I am always surprised at the grant drafts I receive, full of text that has NOTHING to do with the question that is being asked. Start by re-reading the eligibility guidelines, criteria, timelines, restrictions – often I will copy and paste these into my Word document at the beginning of the relevant section/question, so they are easily accessible to refer to as you write your grant. Don’t understand what you are reading? (and believe me, it happens to me too!) – CALL the funder ask them to explain what the question means, and what they are looking for.
Knowing your audience – staff vs. jury vs. community review: Who is assessing your application does have an impact on grant preparation. An adjudication process that only involves funding agency staff (and possibly ministerial/political approval) (e.g. Canadian Heritage), may bring a higher level of understanding of the complexities of the artistic processes involved, as well as the specifics of your organization (especially if you have a history with the funder). Peer-based juries may (or may not) bring a specific knowledge of your discipline, and the specifics of your organization, and therefore often focus on the strength of the artistic intention behind your proposal. Community-based (or non-arts funder) juries are generally sourced from a wide pool of community residents, who may or may not have expertise in the arts, or your art form, or with artists or organizations – in this case it becomes even more crucial to keep you proposal straight forward and to the point, free of arts-speak of discipline-specific jargon.
Knowing yourself – clarity, uniqueness, self-promotion, self-reflection: This speaks to really understanding your project and being to articulate that in a competitive grant environment. What does that mean? This is about getting you that competitive advantage – what is unique or special about your organization or your project – are you the only group doing this kind of work in your community/province? Is your approach unique? Then TELL the funder that. Do you have a lot of great feedback and community support for what you do? Then brag! BUT…be careful…too much emphasis on your perfection can make funders think you are delusional – some funders WANT some level of critical self-reflection (and often ask that very question, or questions such as “challenges”), so be honest (within reason!).
The usual suspects: standard application questions:
- Profile/Personal Info – most often includes formation & incorporation facts, mandate, mission, (brief!) history of accomplishments, artistic intent and context/role in the community. In the case of an individual (artist) application, this would be your biography, training and a summary of your professional history. Unless otherwise specified, this should be no more than ½-1 page maximum.
- Project Summary & Description – my recommended format for this section includes: and opening summary 1-2 sentences (what, when, where); and a brief overview of what your project is proposing, why you want to do it, some background if applicable, who is involved etc. The project description can also includes goals & objectives and outcomes and some timeline info, if these are not specifically covered in other sections of the application form.
- Goals & Objectives – make sure you know the difference to be able to define both for your project description (even if they don’t ask). A goal is much broader than objectives and activities. A goal should be: the big picture of what you want the final outcome to be; related to the project need statement; simply stated. An objective is a performance measure that would lead to achieving the goal. An objective should be specific, concrete, measureable, and timeframed. A goal may have a few or several objectives. Keep in mind the following when developing objectives: who/what; expected outcomes (results of activities); measures; criteria for achieving the expected outcomes; and timeframe.
- Self Reflection & Identifying Challenges – sometime a funder will ask specifically for critical self-reflection/evaluation of your past activities, and sometimes they won’t. When they do, please take advantage of the opportunity and provide an honest appraisal of your activities and things you felt didn’t go as well as you thought. BUT… if you do, be careful of using overly negative (‘red flag’) language, and always finish on a positive note – be clear about what you learned from the experience, and how it has informed you to do things differently in the future. Even if they don’t ask for this, it is often good to talk about challenges you foresee in the course of your project, as it shows that you have thought through all the ramifications of your proposal. BUT (again with the but’s)… if you do, again make sure to avoid overly negative language, and always close off the thought by explaining how you plan to address/meet the challenge.
- Timelines/Workplans – this essentially links back to your Objectives and defines the specific activities you will be engaging in to achieve your objectives, and the timeframe in which they will be accomplished. An objective can have one or multiple activities. Keep in mind the following when assigning activities: what activities/events will be performed?; and are the activities reasonable to the objective? And be specific and realistic about your timeline – the amount of detail you provide will really reveal to the funder whether you have mapped out your project plan sufficiently.
- Creative Team / Partners & Supporters – this is where you can list your creative team members and their role (with a description of their role in the project, and bios if you can attach); and describe the partners you are working with (again, with their roles) for the project, and other support systems you will be working with in the community.
- Outcomes – What this essentially mean is what will be the final outcome(s) of the project – includes tangible (quantifiable) items (e.g. a performance), and also things such as benefits to people/artists involved, to the (arts) community and to the public. This is an area that is rapidly becoming one of the most important aspects of the evaluation of the merits of (competing) projects – how much, and how well your project engages and benefits its intended target audiences/participants/artists is crucial – so talk it up! And gone are the days of “bums in seats” mentality – it’s really no longer about the quantity of people involved, it’s now much more about the quality of the experience, the level and depth of engagement etc
- Administration/Resources & Capacity – even if the application doesn’t touch on this subject, it’s really important to address it, so don’t overlook! I always like to think of this as the ‘confidence game’ question – where you convince the funder that you have the expertise, capacity, experience and resources to pull off what you say you’re going to do. Bottom line: since most grants are public tax dollars, funders need to know that who they are granting to are capable and accountable.
- Marketing / Promotion & Outreach – sometimes funders will ask about how you plan to promote the event/project – this is the place to outline your marketing methodologies, vehicles, advertising, social media, websites, etc. You can also talk about any special outreach you plan to do to specific target communities, or how your partners might help in this regard; as well as any audience engagement strategies (brochures, publications, artist talks, talk-backs etc.)
- Evaluation & Sharing – often overlooked and one of the hardest questions to answer. And something that is coming up in applications MUCH more often in recent years. Funders are really interested in how to plan to assess how well your project did against your objectives. Also, some funders ask how you might plan to share results – the idea of the sharing of project successes and best practices, that go to strengthening the arts community overall, is an important one.
Brevity versus Info Overload – how much is too much; how little is too little?: This is often a pitfall for writers, and also much depends on the specific grant you are writing. Going on and on for pages about your project, and never getting to the point of what it is about, can make the reader frustrated and edgy (and disinclined to fund it!); yet if the idea is vague and not well defined, that can also have the same effect. Many grants these days are also asking for word or page maximums – which, while good for the funder (and in some cases the applicant), can at times become VERY challenging to work with, and still get all your important info included. I often tell clients to not worry about the page maximums to begin with – just write it all out, and go from there. When you have the full description in front of you, it’s much easier to go back and make decisions about what info is not crucial (or redundant), and start editing down to where you need to be.
Telling your story: writing styles, facts vs. fiction – the fine points: It seems this is where people often get tripped up, when it comes to actually writing about their idea/project – they get overwhelmed with the amount of info they are trying to communicate. I always ask clients to think about it as if they are explaining their project to someone who has no idea what it’s about (the old ‘elevator pitch’) – how would you sum up your project in a few sentences? Sometimes writing an outline can also be helpful: sketching a few notes about your idea, and then simply going back and filling it in. My hierarchy of a project description is often very similar: I start with a one to two line summary of the project (who, what, where, when); then go into the background/rationale of how the project came about; and then into a longer description of what you plan to undertake (which then rolls into goals, objectives, timelines, etc, see above). Bottom line, the key concepts for writing: clarity (no jargon or artspeak!), brevity, relevance, factual (if you haven’t fully worked out an aspect of the project, just say that, don’t lie), engaging (personal stories, examples or quotes to back up a point).
Getting Help: everyone needs a critic!: Finished your draft and still not sure if its good? Ask friends, family, colleagues to read it over for you. And ask them to be HONEST with their feedback (‘it looks great’ is not much help). Bottom line: show your description to a few people who have no idea of your project, and if they get to the end and don’t understand what you’re trying to do, then something is missing or not working.