The Dos and Don’ts of Grant Applications

Greetings from the Fractured Atlas Grants Committee!

Writing grant applications is a drag. We all get that. We also get that people are looking for money anywhere they can to help them do the art they are passionate about, and we want to support as many artists as we can. That said, there’s a right way and wrong way to ask for money.

We recently completed a round of grant application reviews and after discussing the latest proposals with the fine folks of Fractured Atlas, it was suggested that I might put our thoughts into a blog post. And so I submit the following. I certainly don’t consider myself an expert, but I also don’t think any of this is particularly revolutionary. As Samuel Johnson said, “Man needs more to be reminded than instructed.”

The Dos (with a few don’ts thrown in for examples):

  1. Do answer the questions actually being asked: It sounds so simple, and yet… When an application says “Provide a brief summary of the proposed activities” it means “give us your pitch.” Don’t start explaining who you are and how you came to do what you do. Don’t talk about the amazing people you work with. Think of it as your elevator pitch, which is sales/development jargon for “make the sale in the time it takes to ride an elevator a few floors.”
  2. Be concise: Remember that yours is not the only application anyone is going to read.  No proposal reviewer takes their job lightly, at least we certainly don’t, but we’ve got a lot of reading to do. Tell us what you want, why you want it, and why we should give it to you. As fascinating as the back story to how you came to want to do what you want to do, and I’m sure it is really interesting, the back story is not what you’re asking for money for, never mind your collaborator’s back story.
  3. Be specific: This goes for every part of the application. If you’re applying for money for a consultant, tell us exactly what that person will do and exactly how you will go on doing what you need to do without that person when the consultant is done. If you are filling out a budget, tell us exactly how much each aspect is going to cost. Don’t just say “computer equipment- $1000” Say “HP G60-235DX laptop- $579; Microsoft Office Home- $149; Quickbooks- $99.” Vagueness raises red flags
  4. Be clear: Seriously. This one might be subtitled “proof read and make sure you’re saying everything you need to say correctly.” If you want money to go to Cleveland to work with an amazing dance company, say that. Don’t go off on long tangents. We’ve had more than a few applications where we spent some time discussing what exactly the artist wanted money for. If we have to have that conversation, we’re not going to give that person money.
  5. Take the application seriously: We realize we’re not giving out vast sums of money, but it is money that can make a difference, so don’t just throw together an application in the last moment. We get lots of strong applications and the best ones are those that are well considered and well written. Put real effort into your proposal; others are putting effort into theirs.

The Don’ts (the ones I didn’t mention above)

  1. Don’t ask for something that doesn’t fit the grant guidelines: This is a pitfall for large organizations as much as individual artists, for grants of every size. But I’ll use an example closer to home:  if you’re applying for an organizational development grant, don’t ask for money for Photoshop for your photography. That’s not developing your organizational structure, that’s a tool you use for your art. Read the guidelines carefully. If you’re not sure, ask.
  2. Don’t expect the grants committee to fill in the blanks: Here’s a common mistake we see. A proposal includes a budget for $3500, asks us for the maximum of $1000, and doesn’t clearly explain where the difference is going to come from. If we don’t think you’re going to be able to accomplish what you want to accomplish, we’re not going to fund it. If you tell us that it’s going to cost more than what you’re requesting, but that you’re also approaching other realistic funding sources and/or have other means of covering the cost, we have no problem contributing.
  3. Don’t assume anything about who is reading your proposal, except that they want to give money: This is kind of a do and a don’t shoved together. It’s important to be explicit about what you want and why it’s valuable, but don’t assume the committee is filled with experts in your field. On the other hand, don’t assume they know nothing. The Fractured Atlas grants committee isn’t get paid, we’re a group of passionate professionals who want to help artists.
  4. And finally, don’t ask for money to file as a 501(c)3: We get a lot of these and in our last round of applications one member of the committee put it best: if you need to ask for money to file, you’re not ready to file. I expect to get a lot of feedback on this one, but I swear I’m not trying to get everyone to use Fractured Atlas’ fiscal sponsorship program. However in general, small arts organizations are far better served by using a fiscal sponsor like us than going through the expense, hassle, and ongoing demand of being a 501(c)3 themselves. We have established organizations that use us as a fiscal sponsor so they don’t have to deal with all the nonsense.  If you’re an individual artist or a small organization, would you rather spend the first quarter of each year shuffling papers and probably talking to an accountant, or making your work? I vote for number two.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, more a jumping off point. I look forward to hearing ideas from others.


14 Responses to “The Dos and Don’ts of Grant Applications”

  1. plummer:

    Yes! This is wonderful! I hope all our grantees read it!

  2. kategreer:

    This is great feedback. I have a question about applying for a grant for Finishing Funds:

    I need approx 18K to finish my short film. I recieved one small grant for the first part of the film. The program I am applying to gives out amounts from 500-2500. How could I proceed when I am just at the beginning stages of fundraising for the 2nd half? Are they likely to fund something like this? How can I make myself look favorable to them?

  3. afarkas:

    Great question, kgreer06 -

    I don’t have any experience with film grantors, specifically, but in general, I would say — be sure to tell them what you can do with only the money you are asking for from them. If you don’t have other funding sources lined up yet, or don’t have any other grants out, make it clear what $2500 can get you. Will it allow you to buy equipment you need? Can you shoot a trailer to use to get more funding?

    That would be my approach…

  4. kategreer:

    Thanks so much. Very helpful. I thought that would most likely be the track to take. Thanks again. I am sure I will have more questions. Thanks for the blog!

  5. kategreer:

    ps: On a side note: You might remember me from when we worked on THE DEATH OF DON FLAGRANTE DELICTO together. What a show!

  6. afarkas:

    I totally do! An I see that you worked with Beresford Bennett. Good luck with your project!

  7. Mary Sundet Jones:

    Just got around to reading this, and it’s fabulous — could I adapt it and (with appropriate credit) pass it on to our audiences?

  8. afarkas:

    Go for it! Can you send us a link when it goes up? And thanks for the flattery… it will get you everywhere ;)

  9. smccalley:

    Thank you for this helpful and well written piece of advice!

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  11. Karen G:

    Just a bit unsure still even after reading SO much on your sponsorships…do we need to be a not-for-profit film/company in order to receive or apply for sponsorship? We could sure use some funding! Thank You kindly!

  12. AFTERLIFE - A Journey into the Light:

    Is there somewhere a website anyone knows of where we may apply for a grant where we wouldn’t need to be not for profit? We are in WA. The film is based on true events. I’ve not come up with any grants thus far or found any to apply for. We have decided to re-shoot certain scenes and are pretty much “spent” on funds at this point. Any thoughts are very much appreciated!We’ve been told by many accross the globe that this films story needs to be told to the world and I couldn’t agree more! THANK YOU!!!

  13. Beth Rodriguez:

    Very helpful. Thanks so much for the insights into your process.

  14. Angela Baumgartner:

    Thanks for a helpful article. I recently interviewed several fine art gallery owners in the Portland/Vancouver area and they said people not following directions or paying attention to important details in submission guidelines are some of their biggest problems. Slowing down to read the questions and looking at things from the other person’s perspective not only gives us a better chance of success but shows consideration and respect for their time/resources and energy. Good job; appreciate your insights.