Note from Cory: Claire is a good friend of mine, a world-class writer, and one of the people I trust most when it comes to understanding how to raise money for artistic projects. I’m excited to have her guest posting here. You should check out her upcoming course on grant writing.
I talk to a lot of people who are terrified to even begin to approach writing a grant. Whether you’re a freelance artist pursuing one of the vanishingly few opportunities in the U.S. available to support individual creative projects, or you’re part of a 501c3 arts nonprofit seeking funds for work in your community, the process can seem crazy intimidating.
Maybe you got scared off by some twelve-page downloadable PDF of instructions (“please submit one original and seven double-sided, hole-punched, collated copies of the grant application, including all attachments. NO STAPLES OR BINDER CLIPS!”)
Maybe you’re staring blankly at a computer screen full of perplexingly vague questions like “Please describe your career as an artist to date, your concrete goals for this project, and your overarching creative vision in as much detail as possible. LIMIT: 100 words.” The project budget spreadsheet alone can be enough to make you want to throw in the towel.
But please don’t! Because I am going to tell you a secret. (I normally charge for this secret, but any friend of Cory Huff is a friend of mine, so I’m sharing it with you guys for free.)
The great secret to writing a grant is that you already know how to do it.
The Secret of Grantwriting
Do you remember in high school, or in comp 101 in college, when you learned about the four main types of essays? (Don’t worry, I’m not going to make you list them. This isn’t a pop quiz.) At its heart, if you strip away all the bells and whistles – the long lists of supplementary documentation, the complicated application process, the printing and copying, the juggling income and expenses to make them match up – all you’re doing is writing a persuasive essay. That’s it.
The question on the table is, “Why is your work worth supporting?” Your grant application is the answer to that question.
The photocopies of press clippings, the budget showing where your other revenue is coming from, the statistics about how many people have been impacted by your programming, the resume or CV with all your professional achievements . . . those are the tools that support your argument.
Your argument is, “I am awesome, and the thing I am making is awesome, and it deserves your support.”
Begging vs. Engaging
If that last sentence gave you a tiny ping of “yikes” somewhere in the back of your mind, this next section is for you.
When I’m talking about grantwriting with artists who are diving into it for the first time, there’s always one sticking point that comes up over and over again. It’s both a profoundly simple statement, and a staggeringly complex psychological roadblock that can make any fundraising activity feel terrifying and impossible, dredging up all the imposter syndrome and self-doubt that haunts us as working artists on every one of our worst days.
We hate asking for money because it feels like begging.
This phenomenon is universal. I’ve heard it from huge theatre companies courting corporate season sponsorships and from scrappy independent musicians applying for residencies and fellowships. Fundraising is often abstract; selling a book you wrote is a concrete act where you’re putting a physical item with a cost attached into somebody’s hand, but setting up a Patreon so donors can support you while you write the book is a totally different relationship. And it can ping all those triggers in the back of your mind from your parents or your guidance counselor or your crappy boss or whoever serves as the demoralizing voice in your head whispering that the work you do as an artist isn’t really real work.
Read the comments on any news article about any arts and culture organization in your town (or actually, for your own sanity, don’t) and you’ll find at least half a dozen people shouting that corporations and the government shouldn’t be subsidizing frivolities like art and if the symphony can’t break even on the cost of ticket sales, it deserves to be shut down.
We’re conditioned to feel embarrassed that we’re asking for a handout. We’re conditioned to apologize for the fact that our work costs money. We’re encouraged to work for “exposure” instead of saying, “I’m performing a professional service and this is what it costs.” We live in a society that makes it really easy to devalue artists, and sometimes we let that messaging sink in and we start devaluing ourselves.
This is why the most important thing I tell any new client who is writing a grant for the first time has nothing to do with how to craft a project budget (although that’s crucial) or keep their press archives up-to-date (although they should).
The first thing you have to do is reframe the question.
When you write a grant, when you pitch a donor, when you set up a Patreon or Kickstarter page, you are not holding out your cup and begging for change. You aren’t asking for a favor. You’re extending an invitation. The question you’re asking is, “Hey, do you want to be part of bringing to life something really cool?”
Start there. That’s your mission statement. The way to get funders to sit up and take notice, the secret sauce that will make your grant leap out of the stack of sixty-five jillion identical applications, is to stop apologizing for taking up space.
Where to Start
Learning to brag about yourself effectively in a grant application is a skill that takes time to develop, and it will probably make you feel a tiny bit gross at first to craft an itemized list of your most impressive accomplishments. (This will pass.) In the meantime, here are five questions to consider which will help you begin crafting the kind of project description language that will help make your grant narrative really sing.
1) Can you make the case to the funder that this work you’re creating presents significant value to your community, to your artistic field, or to the audience you serve?
2) Can you make the case that the work presents significant value to you as an artist, advancing your career in some way?
3) Can you make the case, using your own credentials, CV, sexy quotes about how awesome you are, professional accomplishments, statistics, etc., that you specifically are the best possible person to undertake this project? If your application ends up in the stack next to a really similar project, have you pulled out all the stops to demonstrate why yours is the one that deserve this funding?
4) Have you carefully thought through and presented all the logistics? That is, if they handed you a check tomorrow, have you presented evidence that you already know exactly what to do with it and there’s a plan in place? (Budget, timeline, personnel and materials needed, travel costs, etc.)
5) Did you do your homework? Are you as confident as you can be that this particular project is a good match for that particular funder? Have you looked into other projects they’ve supported in the past? Do you have a feel for their average grant size? Do you know what their mission statement and funding priorities are?
Remember to use clear, strong language; don’t be afraid to get a little lofty, but anchor your abstractions with specifics. And don’t forget, you’re not begging for a handout; you’re making something awesome, and you’re inviting a donor to be part of bringing a new thing to life. Which, when you think about it, is pretty darn cool.
Claire Willett is a playwright, novelist and professional arts grantwriter in Portland, Oregon. Find out more about her online classes and coaching here. Registration is currently open for “Don’t Be Scared of Grantwriting!”, a three-part beginner-level online class for artists, running in both May and June.