Artists are pulled into their careers by a creative motivation they can’t ignore. There’s almost no other choice, when you’re passionate about your art. Whether it’s sculpture, writing, or composing, your career is all about the process and development of your chosen craft.
What a lot of emerging artists don’t bargain for is the fact that when you commit to a creative career, you become a double agent. Every artist is also a grant writer. Getting a grant or other similar application-based award, like a residency, can mean full support of projects or production of work and living cost, for anything from a few weeks to even years.
It’s undeniable that grants are an impactful and often even a necessary aspect of making a body of work. Unfortunately, what makes you an incredible artist (thinking outside the box, looking at the big picture over small details, valuing creativity over convention) might also be what makes you a terrible grant writer. Amazing artists are often overlooked because of poor grant proposals. Avoid missing out on funding because of a bad proposal with this step-by-step approach to creating a winning one.
1. Develop a Project Idea
“What will I do?”
“Where will I make it? Where will I show, perform, or publish my project?”
“When will I make it? When will it be seen?”
“How will I do it?”
“Why is this an important project to myself and other people? Why is it important to my career right now?”
If you can’t answer these questions, you probably aren’t ready to propose a grant.
2. Start Early
Start two months in advance. You need time to write a proposal, hire a photographer, contact a granting officer, format your material , and ship the package. There can be technical difficulties when submitting online. You don’t want those to happen at 11pm the night the proposal due. Besides, we all make mistakes when under pressure. Get started early, and you won’t find writing a grant stressful.
3. Check Your Eligibility
Nothing is worse than an application getting automatically rejected because of ineligibility. If you are unsure, contact the funding officer. Make sure to apply to grants that are meant for you. It will increase your success and save a lot of time. One clue is to look at past recipients. A funding body may say they want writers, visual artists, and filmmakers. Yet, if their past recipients are only filmmakers than it’s not the best grant for a visual artist. There are a lot of opportunities out there, so take the time to find the right one. Don’t bend your work and application to suit a funding body. It usually doesn’t work.
4. Get Professional Images
Support material must effectively represent your work. Reproducing artwork can be difficult, but here are a few things to keep in mind when creating images that depict your work.
Hire a Professional
Professional artwork photographers have specialized skills to reproduce art accurately. Not just any photographer can do this. These experts reduce glare, achieve focus, light unique objects, square paintings, and color correct. Be choosy. Get recommendations from other artists. Look at a portfolio of past reproductions. Make sure they give you large tiff files, and jpegs. Confirm a quick turnaround.
Barter Skills or Artwork
If you cannot afford to hire someone, consider a barter system. Often documenting images cost between $300-700. You could trade an artwork priced in this range. Or you may have another professional ability to trade, like web design or crate building.
Be Your Own Photographer
Learn how to photograph your own work. You may have to buy or rent a DSLR camera, and appropriate lights. But if you learn this skill it will save you a lot of money. And in the future, you can even document work for extra cash.
5. Choose Appropriate Images
Support materials must be relevant to the proposal. For example, when a grant supports interdisciplinary projects, I send examples of a variety of disciplines. I include book projects, animations, and painting. If I am applying to grant that is in support of painting I will only include my best paintings.
Choose work that references your plan. Part of proposing a grant is to convince the jury that you can achieve it. If you are a sculptor proposing a video project, don’t just include images of sculptures. Include a short trial video to show your capability with the medium.
5. Prepare Files
Every application has specific formatting guidelines. You must follow the rules. Grants will dismiss a whole application for one mistake.
They will often ask for 10 to 20 images. You will have to email, upload to a site like SlideRoom, mail in a CD or DVD, or send a URL for a website. Always send and format the work as requested. For example, if asked for a video submission of three to five minutes long, never send something longer than five minutes. If they ask for you to email 20 images, never refer them to a webpage. Ignoring instructions will produce doubt in your ability and your interest in the program.
6. Use Writing Exercises
In Gigi Rosenberg’s book The Artist’s Guide to Grant Writing, she recommends free writing. Give yourself a prompt based on a question from the application. Then you write nonstop for ten minutes. Writing under pressure allows you to get something onto paper. This simplistic exercise resolves writer’s block and gets you started.
Another method of explaining your work in plain speech is to record a conversation with a friend about your project. Talking limits the amount of jargon you use, allowing you to find descriptive ways to define your work. This makes the proposal conversational and clear.
Whatever the strategy, get your initial ideas and thoughts onto paper. This will give you ample material to search through for important points to refine and build on in a first draft.
7. Write a Budget
Not all grants require a budget, but if they do, it’s helpful to begin creating one at the same time as your proposal. Start by writing a list of expenses. Be as specific as possible and write down everything you need. This will include material costs, airfare, labor, studio space, software, and other expenses. Specific grants sometimes restrict certain expenses, such as equipment purchases. So make sure to read carefully and omit these categories. This list is the skeleton for your detailed budget.
A budget list also helps you brainstorm what you need to make your project possible, offering important notes for your draft. The proposal and the budget should mirror each other. There should be nothing in the budget not mentioned in the proposal, and vice versa.
Once you’ve listed all expenses, write estimates for their cost. Don’t forget your own labor costs. Estimate how long each task will take and calculate a reasonable wage. A detailed budget shows how your proposal is feasible. If expenses exceed the amount of the grant, it’s important to define supplemental funding. Funding bodies are more likely to invest in a project with multiple funders. Click here, here, and here for some helpful budget tips.
8. Write a Draft
Writing a draft can be daunting. But after taking notes and using writing exercises you’ll have the material you need to begin.
Write clear, short paragraphs, and cover all required information. Personal writing will captivate your audience. Write as if you are talking to a friend. Paint a clear picture of your proposal by using simple but descriptive language. Build on what is unique about you and your project.
Specific Points to Cover
How does this project connect to, depart or build on past work?
How will your work and career advance or develop?
Why is this project urgent?
What makes the project important?
How will you make this happen?
What resources will you need? How will you get them?
When will the project take place?
What steps are you taking to make it possible?
Where will you make it?
Where will it be exhibited, performed, or published?
Information to Avoid
Avoid stating the obvious, such as that you need money or space.
Don’t write general statements. Instead, be as specific as possible.
Don’t use language that can alienate your reader.
9. Start With a Clear Pitch
Professional grant writer Preethi Burkholder says that the best proposals “begin with the need statement, a description of the artistic need that your project is addressing.” Grant jurors read hundreds of applications. So you need to state your pitch quickly. Let them know how, what, when, why, and where, in the initial lines.
“Underwater Politics will explore how exploring how territories are divided in the ocean. The themes will be explored through a series of photographs, resulting in an exhibition at Landon Hall in 2018.”
“A Caterpillar’s Awakening is a children’s coming-of-age story depicted in stop-motion animation. It will be shown October 2018 at the New York Children’s Film Festival.”
10. Use Appropriate Style
It is important to write clearly, concisely, and consistently. Accessible language allows your proposal to be understood.
Here are some tips for refining your writing:
Use future tense.
Use the best word. Use the most specific language to paint a precise picture of your project.
Use concrete words, instead of abstract or general terms.
Use the fewest words. One adjective is better than two.
Get rid of qualifiers. These only make you sound unsure.
Avoid passive tense.
Reflect the language used by the funder.
Use strong verbs instead of weak nouns.
Use relatable and accessible language.
Hemingway Editor is an app that helps ensure future tense and strong statements. It highlights sentences that are difficult to read, and points out the overuse of adjectives, and the use of passive voice. This is the perfect application for the style good grant proposals need.
11. Use Editors
Now that you’ve sketched out a draft, you need feedback. Choose someone who is not an artist to ensure that the language is accessible. More than one editor is best. The editor you respect the most should read your last draft. Get the most out of your editor by asking them questions:
“What is engaging?”
“What is boring?”
“What is unclear?”
“What is awkward?”
“Can you picture my project?”
“Do you believe I can do it?”
“What is missing?”
“Did I answer all the questions?”
12. Fill Out Application Forms
Application forms are usually straightforward. There will be specific instructions. So watch for potential errors. Use auxiliary questions to expand and specify what you couldn’t fit into the proposal, but always make sure that the information is appropriate and vital to your project.
13. Prepare Curriculum Vitaes and Bios
Funders will ask for either a curriculum vitae (CV) or a bio. This is to assess your education, awards, residencies, exhibitions, and other accolades. A bio is a short 100-200 word statement that is often written in third person. It lists the most important accolades in a paragraph describing your history. A CV is a long list of experiences. It benefits an artist with a dense professional history, rather than an emerging artist with little experience, who would do best to choose a bio. A CV lists education, exhibitions, press, publications, residencies, performances, and artist talks. Other categories may be included. Make sure to follow the maximum word or page requirements.
14. Use A Checklist
Checklists are often provided, but if not, make your own. It’s important to include everything. If mailing the proposal, there will be details on how many copies of each form, and how to collate the information. The application will even specify minuscule instructions such as to use staples, or paper clips. Again, follow directions exactly.
15. Submit and Follow Up
You’ve done it! You wrote a clear proposal and you followed all those complicated rules. Congratulations! Now, mark your calendar for when you will hear back, and experience the torture of waiting.
Some artists recommend following up after submitting your proposal. If it’s a smaller institution, this could be a good idea, but at a bigger institution, it may be difficult to reach anyone who can assist you.
If you get the grant, congratulations! Now, make sure to acknowledge the funders. Attach their name to the project. Write a thank you letter. And when the project is complete, write a report with the results.
If you don’t win the grant, don’t fret. Rejection is part of the process. Follow up anyway, thanking the funders for considering you, and see if they have time to let you know what needs work in your application. You might not have gotten the grant because of the taste of the jurors. Or it could be because of something you are missing in your proposal, or an approach you took that wasn’t effective. Any feedback is helpful, and you can turn losing a grant into a learning opportunity.
Want more grant proposal tips? Take a look at our guide to writing great photography grant proposals.