April 11, 2012

From NYFA Quarterly: The Etiquette of Getting Grants

A little grant writing advice can go a long way. In the following article, Shakurra Amatulla outlines some of the basic information necessary for researching and writing grants.

Shakurra Amatulla (The Grant Lady)

So you want a grant—that chunk of money that’s "out there" just waiting for your request? But you’re impatient, sometimes believing that the road to success must open before you faster than Moses parted the Red Sea. In your search for grants, you buy and read everything about this free cash, continually look for people to guide you to said loot, and still you haven’t gotten any closer to it. At some point, you’re probably going to run into me, hear about me, or be directed to seek me out. Be afraid. Be very afraid. I’m a whine-buster. I became a grant consultant in 1982 after applying for and receiving a grant from a writer’s organization. It was then that I discovered an over-abundance of often overlooked funding sources. As a result, I launched a monthly grants newsletter which preps subscribers to realistically assess if their funding needs can be sensibly obtained from immediate means—such as a local community service agency—or if their needs are best addressed through a grant. The following is a collection of familiar whines consistently thrown at me during my grant lectures, or via letters, email, or telephone. Each whine is followed by my usual response.

The real deal
Whiner: "I want some of that free grant money to support me so I can stay home and create my art." 

I know of no grant that will wholly support you. You may have heard of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship that awarded $500,000 to each of this year’s recipients. However, you must be nominated by a special committee to receive this grant. You cannot apply nor nominate yourself. It’s worth your while to view the biographies of this year’s winning Fellows (www.macfdn.org). I guarantee it will be a humbling experience.

Let’s burst a myth right here and now. There’s no such thing as free money. Even if the only thing you do is mail a simple request letter, you’ve already spent something. You’ve spent time writing the letter, and you’ve also spent money for the stamp. It may not sound like much at first, but it will add up over time. If you’re really serious about applying for grants, you shouldn’t stop at just one. You should make applying for grants a part of your life. For example, as a playwright, I consistently enter playwrighting contests and/or send my plays to theaters on a monthly basis, and have been doing so for more than a decade. I’m concerned—and this should also be of concern to you as an artist—that my work is continually circulating before the public. This is how you get noticed. In addition, applying regularly for grants forces me to create new playwriting material. I don’t want to send last year’s play (again) to the same funding organization I’m applying to this year.

You’re living in a hard, cruel world. Don’t be dazzled by those paper prophets offering tried and true methods, the ones who make you gleefully dance to their pied piper tunes. The only money you’ll likely see is the money you gave them for their books, tapes, and/or seminars that usually contain outdated, erroneous, or non-existent grant information. Be careful what you invest in with your hard-earned money. Remember, the higher the award money, the stiffer the competition. Your competitors for such grants are serious artists—

Whiner: "Ouch!"

—who have been consistently honing their craft over a number of years. In general, they are people with their attitudes positively and realistically adjusted. To them, the art is indeed the thing, not how much money they can make. Searching for grants isn’t a gold-digging prospect, but a humbling learning experience in which your work is constantly being tested, judged, and appraised. Sometimes you may win a grant. There’s also the possibility that you may never win a grant in your entire lifetime. There are no guarantees.

How high quality is your art? 

How long have you been working at your craft? I recently asked this of a young lady who came to me in search of a grant to "support-me-in-the-fashion-in-which-I’m-accustomed." She answered that she has been writing plays for a little less than a year. She became fairly indignant when I told her that she needed to put quite a few more years into honing her craft before she attempted grant research. Here’s why: Consistency, commitment, and high quality art are key essentials in any grant-maker’s funding decision. Your art is your love. Nurture it!

Whiner: "I can’t write my way out of a paper bag. Just give me some proposal buzz words and I’ll sprinkle them into whatever I send to these grant people." 

Non-profit organizations that seek funding are usually expected to be on top of proposal writing "buzz words." You, on the other hand, are usually asked to send in a page or two describing yourself along with samples of your artwork. Most likely, your proposal will be more along the line of an elongated résumé. If you want to be taken seriously, you must submit clean, typo-free, professional-looking materials. If you can’t write or spell worth beans, your computer spell-check and grammar helpers are not going to save you. Take a free or low cost adult education writing class at a local community college. If you don’t have the time, go out and buy a style manual (such as The Chicago Manual of Style) and study it. Let a writer friend give your work a final once-over before you send it out. But don’t ever send out work that remotely resembles a lot of the careless letters I’ve received. Be aware that funders in grant-giving institutions wholeheartedly share my concern for presentable proposals. Why should they weave through a mass of sloppy, poorly written proposals when there are so many neat, carefully written, and articulate requests from conscientious artists? Take care of every piece of work you send out. Your written presentation is your calling card. It’s your possible entrée into a world of higher opportunities. Send out your very best work.

Whiner: "Writing grants sounds like an awful lot of hard work for no guaranteed financial returns!" 

Yes, it is hard work. The process is much like life. It can be unfair. But along with the mundaneness of life, there are some joys and pluses to keep you going. Once you’ve committed yourself to your art and obtaining artistic recognition through grants, you’re in it for the long haul. It’s crucial to know that although you may not be awarded money, you can still attain success in your efforts. For instance, a member of the grant committee you applied to may be impressed by your work, but funding may not be available for you. Instead, you’re given a personal recommendation to a prestigious member in the art world. You may even be asked to apply again next year, or to keep the foundation informed of any gallery openings you may have. Believe it or not, you’ve done well here! Before you know it, you’re "known" in certain artistic circles. You may still be poorer than a church mouse, but you’ve made some significant steps in your career. (Be sure that you send a personal, handwritten thank-you note to anyone who expresses interest in or commends your work.)

Remember that money isn’t the measure of your success. The more emphasis you place on how much cash you’ll receive, the more you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. Life is rich with opportunities. Open yourself up to them and keep your eyes on the "prize" (your goal). Most of all, stop whining. You’re "owed" nothing. It’s with hard work, a positive attitude, and commitment to creating high quality art—sprinkled with a tad of humility and a good sense of humor—that you can really enjoy the true richness of success.

The Grant Lady is Shakurra Amatulla, publisher of For Us Women Newsletter, an Internet Web site on grants for women and people of all "flavors" (www.grantlady.com). She also works as a grants consultant and career counselor.

This article first appeared in New York Foundation for the Arts Quarterly in 2000 (Vol. 16, No.3).  

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