You’ve volunteered to be a member of a grant assessment panel. The submissions have all been sent through, and you’re looking at the vast pile of proposals in horror. There are so many, and the pot of money you can distribute is so small.
So you pour yourself a cuppa, and settle in to read and take notes. And all the while, as you look through each proposal, you’re sorting them out in your mind (or, better, on a spreadsheet). In this first read-through, though, you’re probably just skim-reading, and developing a long-list of proposals that might be worth a second look. You’re actually looking for reasons to discard proposals, and hoping that, along the way, at least one or two will jump out as obvious contenders for funding. It’s a brutal process.
But if you are an applicant, not an assessor, and yours is one of the applications those assessors are reading, how do you ensure that your proposal is a winner?
To begin, picture a standard bell curve.
This curve is what the grant assessment panellists will create from that vast pile of proposals in front of them.
When you submit your grant proposal, you want it to fall naturally and easily into the green section. You want the members of the grant assessment panel to look at your proposal and immediately think “Yep, this one is a no-brainer. Let’s give them the money.”
Far too often, though, our grant proposals fall into the yellow and orange quartiles. These are perfectly good proposals, but they’re just a bit, well, meh. They are worthy, maybe even sort of interesting, but they just don’t stand out from the crowd.
And the proposals that fall into the red quartile? Well let’s just say that they’re the ones that at least give the grant assessment panel something to laugh about. “I’m an unpublished writer with zero expertise and no track record but having spent my entire working life as an accountant, I have an idea for a horror-romance-gardening novel that my mum says will undoubtedly be a best-selling work of international significance and am seeking funding to spend time on a yacht in the Whitsundays, in order to write it.” Um, that’ll get you a hard no, I’m afraid.
How, then, to ensure your proposal gets the green light?
Step one: Start working on your proposal as soon as possible. Don’t leave it until the last week, day, hours before it is due. You may well ignore this, but you know I’m right. Even if you can write fast, you’ll likely need as much time as you can find to round up letters of support, and other necessary supporting material.
Step two: Read all the documentation closely – yes, all of it, even the tedious terms and conditions. Read the application form, read the guidelines, read the FAQs.
- You may discover that the grant funds have to be used within a certain time period.
- You may discover that you are not, in fact, eligible.
- You may find that the grant winners are required to commit to certain undertakings (talks, presentations, articles).
- You will definitely discover what support documentation is required. Make a list, and be like Santa – check it twice. Note that sometimes it takes time to gather all the necessary supporting material (see also step one)
Step Three: Develop a clear sense of what you want to apply for. If you’re vague in your own mind, you’ll be vague in the application and it will be weaker as a result.
- What is your project?
- Why is it important?
- Why is it important that you undertake it?
- What value can you add to make your proposal stronger than the others?
If these questions are difficult to answer, then consider whether you should be applying for this grant at all. It’s not enough to simply want the funds: you need a strong proposal that closely fits with the grant’s aims, objectives and selection criteria. If you have to twist your project out of shape to fit the requirements of the grant, then chances are you’ll end up in the yellow and orange zones. Same if you find yourself struggling to meet the selection criteria. Remember, you’ll be competing against proposals that meet all of them, with bells on. Instead, make sure it’s your proposal that’s ringing all the bells…
I recently assessed some applications for a residency. Writers were, essentially, asked to apply for an office space. Most of the applications said: “I’m working on an interesting project, can I have the space please.” The strongest applications said: “I have a strong writing track record (examples), I’m working on an interesting project (clear, concise description), I have the relevant background to be working on that interesting project (relevant CV); having the office space will help with my project in these ways (listed), and in addition I’ll use my time in the office to mentor an emerging writer / podcast about the progress of my project / deliver talks (details provided).” Basically, the strongest applications provided extra value.
Step four: At this point, if you still think you’d like to apply, reach out to the contact officer. Every time. Contact officers are solid gold so don’t miss your chance to chat with them. Tell them about your project (briefly), ask some questions, and listen when they give you advice. The listening part, and applying what you hear to your proposal, is of course the most important part. Short on questions? Ask if it’s possible that some grants will be awarded partial funding, rather than the full amount requested. If partial funding might be an option, ask the contact officer how – or if – you should address that option in your proposal.
Step five: You’ve decided to submit a proposal? Great. Now do three things, strictly in the following order:
- Reach out NOW to gather the necessary supporting material. If you need a letter of support from someone, draft the letter for them. Don’t be bashful about talking yourself up in the draft letter – the person who will sign it will simply be grateful that you’ve done the work for them. Then send it as an attachment to your request, which will say: “I’m applying for this grant, please can I have a letter of support signed by you and on your letterhead, I’ve drafted an example for you (attached) but of course feel free to revise it or draft your own.” Later, when you find out whether or not you’ve won the grant, thank them again for their support and let them know how you went (we in the industry call that “being polite”.)
- Prepare your budget. Ensure your budget provides a detailed breakdown of costs because providing a detailed breakdown demonstrates that you’ve really thought this through. And don’t @ me with all that claptrap about “Ooh, I’m an artist, I can’t do financial stuff.” A basic level of financial expertise is actually a vital part of your professional practice and without it you remain a hobbyist. Which is fine, but hobbyists don’t win grants.
- Write the proposal, strictly as per the application form, but only if you’ve already drafted up a budget. No, stop putting it off. Go and do the bloody budget THEN write the proposal because the budget will inform what’s possible. Budget all done? Good. Now you can start writing. I draft the proposal in Word, revise in Word and then paste the finished proposal into the application form but you do you. Be clear. Be concise. Assume the reader knows absolutely nothing about you, or your project. Address the selection criteria even if you’re not specifically asked to. Use sub-headings (because you know the grant assessment panellists are going to skim read). If you are asked to adhere to a page or word limit, then be sure you adhere to it. Don’t run over the limit and give them an easy reason to consign your proposal to the red zone. Conversely, if you are asked to provide 1000 words but find that 750 will suffice, go with that. The overloaded grant assessors will thank you for it.
Step six: Finish the proposal and leave it to marinate for at least 24 hours. Then come back to it and revise. You have time to do this, because Step One.
Step seven: Submit but don’t emotionally invest. Grant proposals are a numbers game and the more you submit, the better you’ll get at writing them and the better you get at writing them, the more likely you’ll win one. Don’t invest all your hopes and dreams in one submission. Instead, aim to send off five / ten / x2 proposals. Just keep churning them out and don’t lose sleep over any of them.
Step eight: Keep track of all your grant submissions, and the results. Record any feedback and use it to improve the next ones. Did you get shortlisted but not actually win? Record that too – because it means that proposal landed in the green zone. Well done. Sometimes the green zone is all we can aim for – whether or not we win is often due to other factors, completely out of our control.
And if you actually win a grant? Congratulations. Be proud of yourself, and let the world know (because those who provided the grant will be grateful for the PR). Include your win on your socials, CV, website, LinkedIn, whatevs.
Then start drafting the next one…
Finally, why am I telling you all this? Because, if I’m applying for grants too (and I am) then aren’t we in competition with one another? Well, not really. The last grant I won had the funds shared between 12 recipients, so it’s not a zero-sum game. And if you have a fabulous project that deserves funding, then I want you to win it. Because I’m not a monster, no matter what you’ve heard.
Also, some of the organisations which offer grants to artists in many different fields keep track of the numbers: if 10% of the total applications are from writers, for example, then they’ll aim to disburse around 10% of the total pool of funds to writers. If 25% of the applications are from visual artists, then they’ll aim to disburse around 25% of the total pool of funds to visual artists. Even funding organisations that don’t, or can’t, operate along similar lines certainly keep track of application numbers. Higher demand for funding (more grant applications) is information that feeds into the policy development machine, or gets fed back to donors and philanthropists. Therefore, more applications potentially means – in the longer term – more available funding. Get those applications in and do us all a favour!
So, have you applied for a grant lately? What worked, and didn’t work, for you?
This is an excellent post, Michelle, and I hope it helps applicants.
But really, I do wonder. I know an author who applied for a grant, not wanting a lot of money, to research a novel interstate. The synopsis was great, it’s an Australian novel I really want to read once it’s finished. Her application was great, I know because I proofread it against the KSCs. She missed out.
And then I read about an author who gets a grant to research yet another commercial novel set in *yawn* Paris. That’s *a lot* of money and I can’t see how it could conceivably add to our cultural capital.
It’s a lottery and I don’t understand how the cards fall the way they do.
Like literary prizes, the awarding of literary grants often does seem a bit arbitrary. But in all cases, I think, those making the decisions are doing so thoughtfully, and in good faith. It’s only a shame that the decision-making processes aren’t more transparent – although I’m not entirely sure how that could happen. Wouldn’t it be great to publish all the proposals (or maybe just those in the first or second quartile), with the judge’s comments appended to each? Or would that just be awful…?
When I was on selection panels, which I was for a lot of things, it was an extra burden to have to do a report as well. So I wouldn’t recommend that, not if the judging is unpaid.
I think the main thing is to have really clear KSCs and for them to be specific about the values attached to the grant. I would have assumed that these grants were meant to be about supporting LitFic because commercial fiction doesn’t need it, but obviously I was wrong about that. If it’s private money, well ok, the sponsor can sponsor whatever they like, and if that means dumbing down, well it’s their money…
But if it’s taxpayers’ money I think it should support cultural activities that are important but not necessarily profitable for publishers.
I’ve also seen fellowships go to people doing bios of Americans rather than significant Australians and I think that’s silly, any American significant enough to warrant a bio is being written about already in the US whereas there are significant Australians crying out for a bio to be written.
Totally agree that any sort of reporting / transparency would add to the assessment burden – so yes, not an option for volunteers – and your point about clarity is well-made. Clear guidelines make it easier for the assessors AND the applicants.
Your recommendations are excellent, if trenchantly expressed. I thought about going down the grant path to turn my dissertation into a book but as you make very clear I would have ended up in the red quartile for sure.
It’s a chicken/egg conundrum. It’s hard to win grants without some sort of literary track record, but grants also form an important part of any writer’s literary track record. My own literary CV was kickstarted by getting shortlisted for a grant (the inaugural Hazel Rowley fellowship). I didn’t win, but having the shortlisting on my CV helped me subsequently. So, to my mind, there’s no harm in giving grants a go but refer also to Step Seven. Don’t emotionally invest!