5 Steps to Take the Pain Out of Grant Writing for Artists

by Eleanor Whitney on May 31, 2016 AFC Workshops


Editor’s Note: earlier this month, we launched AFC Workshops: 21st Century Survival for Artists, a two-part series of courses led by artists, educators and art-world insiders designed to give artists the tools to get ahead. Due to the positive response to our May 21 workshops, we decided to run on the blog a series authored by the facilitators summarizing their course’s key takeaways. (If you’re interested, there are a few spots still available for our upcoming June 18 workshops.)

First up, Eleanor Whitney, who led our “Grant Applications, The TL;DR Overview” course. Whitney is a Brooklyn-based community manager and marketer, writer, and educator. She is currently the Community Marketing Manager at Dev Bootcamp and has also worked at Shapeways, the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Rubin and the Brooklyn Museum. 

There’s no way to sugarcoat it: raising money as an artist is a challenge and it can often feel like a full-time job.

As a writer and former Program Officer at the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA), I have experienced the difficulty of raising money for creative projects first hand. Sometimes, it can feel like applying for grants is more an exercise in bureaucracy than a way to support your creative work. Grant maker’s requirements are incredibly specific, and it can be hard to know if your project meets them. Further, funding timelines seem impossibly long and don’t match up with the lifecycle of your project. Even if you are confident you are a fit for their criteria, when it comes to the grant’s next round, funders may change their giving priorities, and you lose out.

Raising money as an artist is hard, but it doesn’t have to be painful. Just like realizing a work of art, grant writing requires a clear game plan. Having well-developed supporting materials and a thorough knowledge of what the funder is looking for will take you far. And if things don’t go exactly as planned, a willingness to be flexible is invaluable. Funds for the arts in the US are tight and grants are increasingly competitive, which means as artists we have to be extra on-top of application deadlines, do our homework on the variety of opportunities, and ask for help.

Below are five simple steps you can follow to help you navigate the fundraising process, and ensure that when an opportunity comes your way, you are ready for it.

1. Define your Project’s Needs, Goals, and Timeline

Before you start the fundraising process, define the following about your project:

  • What will this project achieve for you as an artist and society as a whole?
  • Why do you need to make this project and why are you the best person to realize it?
  • What do you need in terms of materials, expertise and funds to complete the project?
  • How long will it take?

There are many methods and resources for goal setting, but my personal favourite is borrowed from a technique I learned while I was getting my master’s in public administration: “S.M.A.R.T.” goals (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound). Goals such as “write a 20-page essay first draft by June 30” are “S.M.A.R.T” because you know if you have achieved them and how to measure their success.   

2. Have your Supporting Materials Ready in Advance

Have a current version of each of the above on hand. When you have your basic materials up-to-date, you will not have to spend days writing each from scratch. Customize each piece of writing you submit with your grant proposal to match what the funder is asking for. For example, if you are applying to fund a public art project, highlight your experience creating or working with other public art projects. If you are applying for a curatorial grant, highlight other shows you have curated and curatorial initiatives you have worked on. As always, have a careful friend proofread your writing for clarity and grammar.   

3. Ask Yourself: “What Does the Funder Want?”

Funders give money to projects that help them fulfill their mission and realize their goals. When researching grants, read their mission statements and look at projects they have funded in the past.

As you prepare your application, put yourself in the funder’s shoes. For example, the Brooklyn Arts Council has a mission to support Brooklyn-based artists and organizations that represent a “diverse array of high-quality, innovative, and impactful arts projects that enhance the cultural life of the borough.” If you were applying to this grant, you would want to emphasize how your project contributes to the culture of Brooklyn overall. Conversely, the NYFA fellowship for New York state-based artists is “intended to fund an artist’s vision or voice,” so you would want to tailor your application to emphasize your artistic vision.

When applying for a grant, ask yourself:

  • How will you demonstrate to them that your project is a good fit?
  • What do they need to see and know about you and your project to understand that?

4. Read Guidelines, Follow Directions and Submit your Proposal on Time

Many funders even supply a checklist to print out and ensure you have included all the required application materials. Use it! It seems like the most basic advice in the world, but I’ve seen many artists act like a funder’s guidelines don’t apply to them. Before you get your hopes up about an opportunity, read the full application guidelines and instructions. Scrutinize your project to ensure you are a fit.

Some funders give directly to individual artists. However, many require nonprofit status or a fiscal sponsor like NYFA or Fractured Atlas to be eligible for their grants. Pay special attention to the location, genre, education level, and identity that funders specify are applicable for the grant. For example, some funders focus on women artists, artists from a specific city or neighborhood, or artists from a specific ethnic group like African-American or Asian-American. Grants are highly competitive and giving funders what they request will help your application stand out from the pack. Many funders even supply a checklist to print out and ensure you have included all the required application materials. Use it!

5. Get to Know Funders and other Funding Models

While submitting an application can feel impersonal, building relationships is important in the fundraising process. Take time to get to know staff members at grant-making organizations. Go to public programs and information sessions they host and ask questions about the opportunity from program officers. Look on funder’s websites for a schedule of these events or, if one is not listed, for contact information for Program Officers. Look on funder’s websites for a schedule of these events or, if one is not listed, for Program Officers’ contact information to find out.  Even if a specific grant does not work out for you, remember that the art and philanthropy worlds are very small and people will remember you. When you nurture strong relationships, those can lead to opportunities down the road.

As you prepare to apply for grants keep in mind that they are just one part of the full picture of how artists fund their practice and there are other fundraising models that may be a good match for your project. For example, crowd-funding and collecting individual donations might be appropriate for a project that is individually focused and does not have a clear public benefit. For projects that are experimental or taking your work in a new direction it can be hard to rally a community of support around an unproven project and you may need to self-funding. If you also work in the commercial sector or create products as well as art, you could consider a for-profit model with a business that supports the project.

Finally, fundraising can feel alienating for an artist, but you are not the first one to go through it. Build a community of support and ask other artists for support, advice and feedback. Reach out, ask questions, and give it a try. Grant writing is a skill you can learn and the more you do it, the easier it will get.

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