Thursday, January 22, 2015

5 tips for artists trying to get a grant

This post is for grant virgins and all those who would like to get better at making grant applications.

A friend asked me to help with a grant application today. She had been made aware of it at very short notice but decided to give it a go. The deadline was 5pm today. As it happened there was far too much to do within the time available. This reminded me of all the very many things you need to do before making a grant application. It struck me that as the deadline passed it might be worth writing down what I know about grant applications.  Plus pass on some links to helpful advice and information online (included after my five tips)

By way of an introduction, I should probably disclose that in my career, for a number of years, I was responsible for assessing many hundreds of grant applications for many £millions of public funding.

I was in fact one of those people that applications have to get past before recommendations are made to the "official body" as to whether a grant application should be granted or not.

This was a long time ago but the basic rules of how to satisfy somebody who hands out public funds never go away.

Much of what I highlight below is targeted at making it to the shortlist.  After all at the end of the day, those who are awarded grants should be those with the best proposals in terms of content. The key is to avoid tripping yourself up and falling over before the final hurdle.

Today, when I was looking at the information provided to applicants for the Visual Arts Grant the first thing I did was look for the answers to the first three tips below.

1. Make sure you are eligible for the grant

It's just like art competitions - check out whether you can make an application. You wouldn't believe the number of people who fall at this very simple hurdle!

2. Identify the objectives and priorities for the funding

Grant applications which are very easy to recommend are those which have tailored their application precisely to the objectives and priorities of the funding. So just as advertisements spell out how a product satisfies a need or a wish, your grant application must summarise and detail how your proposal satisfies the defined objectives and current priorities for grant funding.

This is incredibly important. It really doesn't matter how good or worthwhile your project is, if it doesn't have a GOOD FIT with objectives and current priorities then it is generally not worth applying.

That said, it can be worth a phone call to sound people out - particularly if you have a novel proposal - but you might well get a clerk who just tells you to fill the form in irrespective of whether or not you are wasting your time. So do find out who you are talking to if asking for information and advice from the funding agency.

3. Identify the assessment criteria

The assessment criteria are what the panel of assessors will use to judge applications. To be honest it is very like a tick box exercise until you get down to shortlist.

The crucial issue here is that you must avoid giving the assessors any reason to put a cross rather than a tick in any of the boxes.

Here are the common attributes of a proposal which assessment criteria are looking for:
  • Summary - Can you summarise your proposal succinctly? 
  • Deliverables - What happens at the end?  How do you define the net result of this investment in you?  Is this tangible and measurable or just wishful thinking at this stage?
  • Plan - Is there a Plan for how the proposal will work. Or is it just an idea?
  • Resources required: Are you clear about what you will need? Have you costed the resources required? Have you obtained quotes or is everything guesstimates? Would Lord Sugar give you a hard time?
  • Collaborators: Who else is involved and what is their role?  Are other people also providing funding? What's your investment worth - in terms of time, effort, equipment and finances?
  • Timeline - Have you thought through what's involved and identified and analysed the proposal in terms of stages, dates and deliverables.
  • Budget - Is there a budget? Is it realistic?
    • Does it just assume that the grant will provide all funds or any there any proposals for ways to generate funding from other sources or during or at the end of the project. (I used to be a big fan of seed loans which gave enough money to get something off the ground on condition that the loan was repaid within a defined period - at which point it would be recycled to be used again to help another project or group)
    • People who demonstrate how they can maximise their benefit from the funds requested rather than those who ask for "brand new this, that and the other" are far more likely to get a grant. People more likely to get a grant are those who can demonstrate an awareness of the value of money and how they can maximise the benefits which can be achieved if they get the funding. 
  • Credibility - All funders look to see you as an individual or your group are reputable and will make good use of the money. 
    • For this they look at indicators of experience and success.  
    • Think about what your website / blog / Facebook Page / YouTube account say about you.
  • Feasibility - This is the CV part of the application. 
    • Funders are looking to make an assessment of whether the individual or group making an application demonstrates credibility and a track record of being able to deliver results. 
    • As an emerging artist it can be useful to identify other projects you have been involved in, what role you played, what activities you undertook and the results of that engagement.  
    • Make it snappy. Use numbers if you can.

4. Think about why or how your application can stand out

Assessors are humans too. They want to be interested in what you propose. Your job is to make your proposal interesting.

I cannot convey to you how boring it is to receive a lot of grant applications which all essentially say more or less the same thing. Really, really boring. Particularly if they are also written using pompous artspeak or in an inaccessible or inarticulate way.  There is nothing wrong with getting somebody to help you make you grant application outstanding.

One of the ways of getting yourself on that shortlist is to convey what is unique and worthwhile about your project or proposal - i.e. tell them what makes you/it different - but do this in a way which aligns YOUR intent with THEIR objectives and priorities and assessment criteria

5. Give yourself enough time to complete the application

Completing a grant application is not a simple exercise - and it takes some time to get right.
  • Here's a benchmark for you. Think about how long it takes you to complete a painting (including all the ones that are not sellers) before you produce one which can sell for the same value as the grant.  If you are prepared to put that amount of effort into a painting, have a think about how much time you need to put into preparing a grant application!
  • Doing it well needs some practice and it's often a good idea to get some advice from those who have gone before. Be sure to make a distinction when listening to answers between those who have succeeded and those who applied. The latter may well be able to tell you what they wish they'd known before applying!
  • Get ahead of yourself. Here's some of the things you can do to help yourself.
    • It's worth making a note of those grants which you are eligible for and find out what's involved well ahead of time. Do some research and identify the grants which look like a good fit with you. 
    • Look at the requirements of different grants. You'll begin to note that quite a few are asking for very similar documentation about you and your artistic practice.  So make sure you've got all of this down on paper well ahead of any grant application - and then all you have to do is tweak it to fit that application. 
    • Practice writing out everything which sells you and your artistic practice ahead of time. Make it accessible and eliminate all the "high falutin" artspeak. 
    • Get somebody who knows your art well to read through what you say about yourself before you submit anything! You may be overselling or underselling - either way you need to know how it comes across to other people.
    • ALWAYS edit and tailor your standard statements to the grant. A very fast way of eliminating people is to behave like people who send the same CV to everybody when trying to get a job.
  • Just like art competitions, grant applications are going online. What this means:
    • you need excellent photographic images of your artwork - well lit and minus frames - and in the required format. If you can't handle computers now is the time to find somebody who can and is willing to help
    • videos are also good and may well be requested - so make sure they are well presented
    • you need to have all your documentation and files sorted into the appropriate formats and ready to go before you start your application form. 
    • Don't get caught out at the last minute by not allowing enough time to upload your files and completing the online forms.

Advice and Information about Grant Applications

These are useful. However do bear in mind that some of these were written some years ago and hence are now rather out of date eg references to slide submissions and posting off applications when almost certainly applications are more likely to be digital uploads with online forms and assessors will be expecting to look at digital files and videos on YouTube!

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