Originally published in Earshot Jazz January 2016
When I wrote an article for Earshot Jazz about grant seeking in the January 2013 issue, I had no clue that in the following three years my ideas would attract $80,000 to create and produce 50 free concerts in unusual local venues with original music performed by talented regional artists. On top of that, Chamber Music America and ASCAP would twice recognize my ensemble with an Adventurous Programming Award. My life is richer because of new relationships with collaborators and audiences. I also have a growing stack of rejection letters that show most of my plans did not get funded. Today I’m writing to share my experience and encourage others to seek grants in support their creative efforts.
Every grant seeker will need to create four basic materials:
1. a compelling story about a project
2. a budget
3. a resume
4. some work samples
I will detail each of these items later in the article. But first, let’s step back and explore the bigger picture.
The goal of an artist seeking grants is a partnership with philanthropic organizations. These organizations are trying to give money to artists. It is up to the artist to submit an application that demonstrates why the funds are a sound investment for the organization. The artist receives funding for some or all of the project expenses and in return, the philanthropic organization enlists the artist to further its mission. The degree of alignment between the artist project and the philanthropic mission are vital for success. Clarifying a vision for the project is the first step to measuring this alignment.
What cause elicits your passion – climate change, education, civil rights, social justice, economic equity, world hunger, environmental conservation, conflict resolution, gun violence, scientific research, etc.? If you had to put your creativity in service of one cause, what would you choose? Ignoring, for a moment, the investment of time to practice, compose, teach, book gigs, and pay bills, what calls you to help other people?
Next, identify organizations that prioritize this same issue. Find out what programs and services they provide. Do they have a community outreach or education program that might use music for an event? Do they have a support program to fund creative projects? Find out who is in charge of these programs and introduce yourself.
Now it's time to get creative. What can you dream up that combines your passion, the mission of the philanthropic organization, and your musical skills? Let's say your passion is social justice and as an artist, you want to create work on mass incarceration of minorities. Luckily, the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation has an Artist as Activist grant program that supports projects addressing this theme. Projects like setting prisoner poetry to music, music instruction for inmates, or performances in penitentiaries might fit into the funding guidelines. For this example, let's say you are inspired by a poetry collection written by inmates of color at a nearby detention facility.
Now you can begin with one of the four basic materials for grant seeking – a compelling story about a project. Every good story has a setting, a protagonist with motivations, a situation that challenges those motivations, and action toward a resolution of the challenge. For this example, the setting will be a concert. You will be the protagonist motivated to raise up the written work of jailed individuals for the benefit of the community inside and outside the prison walls. The project is action that will produce a concert inside the prison and outside at a public venue.
Time for another basic component of grant seeking – a budget. Practically all grants require a budget showing what costs are included in the project. How much time will it take to find and set poems to music? How many musicians will perform and how many rehearsals? How much travel will be involved? What will it cost to use the venues? How much does event insurance cost? Is there any special equipment to be rented? Are there any special rights or permissions that need to be purchased? How will the performance be documented (audio, video)? How much time will it take to get the word out? What will it cost to make posters and postcards? What advertising would be worth paying for? How will you evaluate the success of the project? How much time will it take for you to do all the paperwork? Each of these items becomes a line in the budget.
Tracking down costs that others charge (venue rental, insurance, printing, advertising) are the easy stuff. When it comes to charging for your time and paying other artists, how do you come up with a fair rate? Do you charge as low as Seattle's minimum wage? Do you try to match American Federation of Musicians scale? Do you use the same charge as teaching a one hour lesson? Do you charge a different rate for composing, rehearsing, performing, recording, paperwork, and marketing? Do you include a leader fee for group activities? Some granting organizations allow individuals to review past applications. If you are stumped, go learn from other successful applications. Remember, these are just plans. The more thought out the plans, the clearer the decision for the funding organization.
At this point, you have a compelling story about a project, a budget, and at least one organization that offers support for some or all of the expenses. Now it's time to show that you have the skills and experience to make the project happen – your resume. Create a list of your life experience related to all aspects of the project – training, employment, volunteering, awards, performances, recordings, compositions, productions, publications, reviews, memberships, etc. Have a friend read it to make sure you're not forgetting important information.
And now, the last basic component of grant seeking – the work sample. Hopefully, you have high resolution audio and video recordings of your recent work. (See where that budget line item for documentation comes in?) From three to five tracks of a recording, select 30 seconds of each that gives a glimpse of your music. I recommend picking things that sound very different from each other to display a wide range of ability. It is a sample and not a comprehensive display of your work.
The work sample is the single-most fickle piece of grant seeking. It will be quickly and subjectively reviewed and assigned a score along with many other application work samples. The number of applications multiplied by the number of work samples for each applicant, divided by the handful of reviewers (often volunteers or independent contractors) result in the actual attention paid to each work sample being almost as brief as scanning through radio stations when you rent a car in a new city. Given this quick pace, reviewers rarely offer any constructive feedback for an applicant to improve next time.
There is one glimmer of hope. Even if guidelines for a grant don't change each year, the work sample reviewers always change. If your work sample fails to tickle the reviewer's ears this time around, there will be another pair of ears when you apply again. The review of work samples is the filter that can narrow the candidate applications the most. Many grant review projects only consider plans, budgets, and resumes after this step so the paid staff can work with a manageable number of applications.
Some parting platitudes:
1. Timing is everything – Grant applications are typically accepted, reviewed, and announced about the same time every year for each organization. Learn the schedule for each organization and give yourself time to prepare in advance of the deadlines.
2. It's all who you know – Organizations employ administrators to oversee the application process. Introduce yourself to these important gatekeepers and touch base with them as you prepare your application. They are there to help you, even though they may be overwhelmed with work. You will enjoy their friendship after a few years of working with them.
3. Read up on the topic – I found Demystifying Grant Seeking: What You Really Need to Do to Get Grants by Larissa Golden Brown and Martin John Brown very helpful even though the book describes a process for organizations, not individuals, to seek funding. The book contains detailed instructions for how to organize the grant seeking process, down to what office supplies you need!