Ask Corbett: Why Apply for a Grant You Probably Won’t Get

A Perfectly Good Reason to Apply for a Grant You Don’t Think You’ll Get

Some hidden advantages . . .


By Corbett Barklie



Grant writing is a time consuming, sometimes annoying fact of nonprofit life. Government grant deadlines cluster together on our calendars and back up into private foundation deadlines making us all crazy. It’s easy to think “I’m not going to get his grant anyway, so I won’t bother applying.” Even if you’re right (although you might not be), there still is a compelling reason to write the proposal anyway.


It’s All About Communication

There is a universe of difference between arts groups and the foundations and government grant makers whose business it is to support them. And the differences go way beyond the obvious have/have not dynamic. There are also cultural differences: the language used by grant makers is often full of insider jargon that is impossible for artists to get their heads around. And our perspectives are frequently polar opposite with grant-makers looking down from lofty perches to identify broad trends and movements, and creatives barely able to see beyond their own noses and the opening of their next show. ­


Then there’s the understandable aversion that grant-makers have to being cornered by hungry grant seekers eager to spend hours discussing the merits of their most remarkable organization, so it’s at all not uncommon for grant makers to make themselves invisible at public gatherings. Further complicating communication between grant makers and grant seekers is the difficulty nonprofits have in disagreeing with anything foundation staff members have to say, no matter what.


All these elements combine to create a ridiculously unhealthy communication void between two sectors that must work together in order to make good on our mutual covenant to positively impact the arts field and its audiences.


Which brings me back to the importance of grant writing.   This is our one chance to openly communicate with grant makers. This is our moment! We have their attention when we submit a proposal. So even if you think your chance of getting the grant is zero, don’t throw away the opportunity for honest communication that writing a proposal gives you.


Basics first: make sure that your organization and your project fits within the guidelines of the funder. The last thing you want to do is make the rookie mistake of asking a foundation for arts money when they only fund homelessness. You’ll look careless and that will negatively impact on the reputation of your organization. So do your research.


Before you begin writing your proposal set aside your assumptions about what you think the grant maker wants to hear – you’re probably wrong anyway. This is your opportunity to communicate honestly and their opportunity to listen. It is also important to remember that there’s a human being on the other end of the proposal. If you fill a grant narrative with what is commonly referred to as “grants speak” you are not only adding to the existing communication problem between grant makers and seekers, but you are also boring the reader to tears.


Now you are ready to write honestly and respectfully about the realities of your programming, your vision, and upcoming opportunities. If you are asked to respond to a question that you can’t answer in a positive way don’t balk, write clearly about the challenges surrounding the situation. One word of caution: Don’t whine or complain excessively or you may, unwittingly, signal that your organization is in crisis which will immediately put you in a weak position. Grant makers want to know that their money will be well managed and spent appropriately.


I recommend writing the first draft of a proposal as a personal letter. Start with Dear Jane or Dear Mr. Doe. This will change the way you write. Don’t worry about being too personal, you can easily correct that later. This is a good thing to do especially if there is a particular program officer that you’d like to get to know. Picture that person as you write and write directly to them.


Remember that grant makers want the same thing you do, so when you write honestly about your experiences, you are also helping them better understand the field. Having sat on numerous grant panels, I am most impressed when I read a proposal that tells me something I didn’t know or never thought about in a specific way. Even if you have observed something that impacts, not just your organization, but the entire field in either a positive or negative manner, and have some thoughts about it, see if you can add a line or two into your narrative. Grant reviewers will appreciate the insights and remember that you took the time to provide them with information they otherwise may not have known.


Corbett Barklie is committed to deep engagement with artists and artist collectives whom she believes are the backbone of the creative community. It is the brave new work undertaken at the grassroots level that informs the field, and expands the palate of the arts consumer. Corbett was the founding Director of Loretta Theatre, the Executive Director of ARTS Inc., and served as the Deputy Director of Development for Center Theater Group. She worked with the NEA as an assessor and consultant in their Challenge & Advancement Program. She has operated her own arts consulting business since 2000 and is an Adjunct Professor in the University of Southern California, School of Theatre, and a trainer for the Center for Cultural Innovation.