I’ve been fortunate enough to be awarded some grants during my career (by Arts Queensland, the Copyright Agency and the Australia Council for the Arts). To balance things out, I have also not received many of the grants for which I’ve applied. As I am a writer, I’ll be specifically directing this towards getting grants for literature, but there’s enough general advice in here for anyone in the Arts to walk away with some useful information. I’m also Australian, so this applies specifically to the Australian system of public Arts funding (d’uh). As with anything, be a responsible self-directed author, and do your own research to fill in the blanks ? that’s the whole point of Google.
So, here are ten things you need to know about grants (*not an exhaustive list):
- Many Hear the Call but Few Are Chosen
Everyone wants one.
Everyone thinks they deserve one.
Everyone’s chances of getting one are very low indeed.
The sad fact is that there’s a limited pool of Arts funding to go around. Artists don’t tend to attract sponsorships the way sportsfolk do … and I think that’s a shame, because honestly, who’d be better adverts than writers for coffee, booze and yoga pants? Well, maybe not the yoga pants so much, lycra is very unforgiving and we’re not always given to activities involving movement or sweat.
My point? Have realistic expectations. What stage are you at in your career? What will you get out of this project/what will you produce? Is your project going to look like a good investment of public funds? I know that doesn’t sound very artistic or creative, but government funding bodies need to justify their expenditure. They need to be able to see some sort of return on investment, whether that be a new work written (although preferably written and published) or a skills development course undertaken to get you to the next level of your creative career.
- Your Application Will Take a Few Weeks
That’s not the decision-making process (that will take months) – that’s the time it will take you to prepare and pull your application together. You’re going to need to discuss in a considered and articulate fashion the scope and aims of your project, how you’re going to do The Thing, and what you’ll get out of it (production of a new work, career development, skills acquisition/development, market/audience development, etc).
You might need to ask for support letters from people with standing in the writing/publishing industry/community who know your work. These people need to be prepared to commit to paper that they believe you will (a) benefit from the grant, (b) will make the most of the opportunity, and (c) will move forward in your career as a result. Hint: do not ask them the night before, it’s the equivalent of telling your mum you need an asparagus costume for school the very next day.
If you’re applying for a grant to produce a new novel, you will also need to provide writing samples to show the grant body the standard of your work – so, not the micro-fiction you threw down one Saturday night after not much thought but rather a lot of cheap wine. An already published piece is generally better than an unpublished piece (shows a publication track record), and a piece that has won an award or had multiple reprintings is better again (again, showing some kind of achievement in your field helps). You might be required to submit a sample of the new work you’re hoping to get a grant to create, so make sure you polish it until it shines. A well-crafted short example is better than a weak overly-long extract.
The upshot of all this is: be prepared. It will take time to write and edit and proof your application (because a document filled with grammatical infelicities and spelling eccentricities is not going to help your cause). And again (I cannot emphasise this enough), it will take anyone who agrees to provide a support letter time to phrase that correctly, so don’t ask for these things at the last minute. They don’t get written quickly or easily: a good letter of support will not only mention your writing ability but also help to demonstrate how your proposed project will move you forward. Respect everyone’s time.
- Don’t Put All Your Eggs in One Basket
There are several organisation to which you can apply for grants, but you cannot rely on getting one from any of them.
If you’re applying for a big grant to buy yourself time away from other forms of paid employment to write a novel/cycle of poems/short story collection, then do not plan on getting that grant. Don’t plan on that being your only source of income, with no safety net. If you do assume you’ll get it, trust me when I tell you that you are going to be devastated if/when it doesn’t come to fruition. I learned that the hard way so you don’t have to: never have only one plan. Nowadays, my back-up plans have back-up plans.
So: what is your Plan B if you don’t get your grant? It needs to be more detailed than just throwing yourself on the fainting couch and howling for a couple of days whilst living on nothing but whiskey and Pringles.
How are you going to keep writing? How are you going to complete this project whether you get a grant or not? Because that’s another thing a funding body will want to see: that you are going to do this project come hell or high water, grant or no. That you’re committed to your artistic career.
That you will commit art no matter what.
You will need to make sure that you prepare a realistic budget for your project. Check with the organisation to see what level of detail they will require for the grant budget (and also for the acquittal process at the end, if you need to keep receipts, etc). If you’re applying for a travel grant to go and do a course somewhere, make sure your budget takes in all the costs, then show what proportion you’re paying and what proportion you’re proposing a grant will cover.
A travel grant will mean airfares, course registration, ground transfers, accommodation, travel insurance, incidentals (like phone costs, printing costs), a per diem rate for meals (you can use the government travel rate charts for public servants as a guide – once again, Google is your friend), etc. A grant to take a significant period off other paid employment to produce a significant piece of literature will need to budget for your expenses during that time: rent/mortgage payments, health insurance, food and utilities bills, associated travel costs for research trips, etc. Again: you will need to figure out what portion is going to be met by you, and what portion by one or more grants.
Grant bodies are also going to want to know that you’re (a) not expecting them to fund 100% of your project, (b) that you’ve applied to other grant bodies to help bear the cost, and (c) that you’ve got other forms of income to put towards the project yourself.
Keep in mind that there are also fully funded fellowships and residencies out there that you can apply for. They should pay you a living stipend for the period of the fellowship/residency, and if they’re located overseas you’ll often get your airfare paid for as well by the administering body. The Aerogramme Writers’ Studio maintains a very useful list of such opportunities (again: not exhaustive, so do your own further research).
- It Takes Persistence
You might not get the first grant you apply for. You might not get the second, or third, or tenth. But: keep doing what you’re doing. A grant body will note if you keep applying, they will note if you’ve kept doing your art in spite of everything, kept achieving. But there is no point in throwing a hissy fit because you didn’t get the grant you applied for, no point in flouncing off declaring you’re never applying again – who is that supposed to teach a lesson to?
It’s also particularly unwise to throw public hissy fits at or in the direction of the funding body. Or even private hissy fits directed at the employees of that body. Why? If only because you might one day decide to apply for another grant – do you really want someone to remember you and say “Oh, hells no.”
Persist in polite but bloody-minded fashion. Show a pattern of persistence, show a pattern of determination and application. Who knows? Maybe one day you’ll get a grant coz someone ends up feeling sorry for you. Pity is also a tool.
- It’s Not All about You
The point of this is: what are you going to put back into your community?
If you do get this grant to help you advance your career, what are you going to do to put something back or pay something forward? If you teach writing or mentor newer writers then that’s your first means of transmitting useful info. Tell your classes about what you learned. If you made connections and new networks as part of your project, then share that information with your students who are likely to be newbies with not a lot of clues: help them learn how the systems work (because grants for newbies are very rare indeed). You can’t make someone into a decent kind generous human being, but you can at least be an example of how one functions. Being a good example of a generous networker is the least you can do. Like, literally.
Similarly, if you’ve got an online presence, then write an article about your experience and what you learned (hey, just like this article on my website distilling and sharing what I’ve learnt! Will you look at that?). Document the advantages and pitfalls. It’s not all about the successes either, so if you encountered problems that others might also find, then talk about them – I’m not saying have a whinge-fest, but just let folk know there were stumbling blocks.
And if you get a publication outcome of out this project, then make sure you acknowledge the help of the funding organisation on your website and in the front matter of your book. Achievements like that are important outcomes for the grant bodies and help keep them getting funded so we keep getting funded.
- You Need to Acquit
If you do get a grant, then at the end of your project you will need to acquit it to the satisfaction of the funding body. This means you need to show that you spent the public funds you were given in the manner you promised – i.e. did not spend it in dive bars or on online shoe shopping binges.
That might take the form of keeping receipts, letters or certificates of completion, or simply writing a report that shows you achieved the goals set out in your original application. If there were things you were unable to do then document that as well and give reasons as to why not. If you did something over-and-above the stated goals then document that as well (international publication, optioning of film rights to the book, etc), and reiterate the places where you will acknowledge the assistance of the grant organisation.
- Be Realistic about What You’re Going to Do
There’s no point in applying for funding for a project that’s so jam-packed that you’ve actually got no realistic hope of achieving everything. The people assessing grant applications will have a good idea of what is and is not achievable in a particular period amount of time. You need to find that fine balance between doing too much and too little, between a realistic workload (because a project is work) and throwing everything into the soup.
- If You Change It, You Need Approval
If you do get a grant but the parameters of your project change before you start it (e.g. part of your professional development or one of your appearances falls through), then you need to alert the granting body as soon as possible. It might change the amount you get, but if you can undertake replacement activities, you should be fine. Just make sure you supply confirmation of the new activities, like enrolment or invitation to participate details. It’s better to catch this at the start rather than having to justify it after you return.
- Remember That You Might Never Get One
I hate to be a Debbie Downer on this and remind you of Points 1 and 3, but it is a sad fact for which you need to be prepared. Don’t rely on getting a grant. Ever. Like awards, this is a crap shoot, a gamble, buying a lottery ticket. However, the advantage is that if you keep applying you show persistence, and you will (hopefully) get better at writing grant applications. Plus you will build up a suite of grant applications that you can adapt from one round to the next so you’re not always reinventing the wheel.
- Don’t Be an Asshole
If someone else got a grant and you didn’t? That’s life. Not everything comes with fries. Don’t whine or bitch, don’t complain, don’t tell others that your project was better. Don’t be an asshole.
Your project might simply not have held up against a range of others: perhaps you didn’t adequately demonstrate how it would help your career, or there wasn’t enough clear benefit to the Arts community, or it simply wasn’t an appropriate fit (hint: if you’re at uni and you applied for an Arts grant in order to complete part of your post-graduate degree, then that won’t fly because there’s post-grad funding for that with your uni). Just be gracious; congratulate those folk who get a grant this round. Maybe even ask them about their application – maybe they’ll be good eggs and let you see it so you can take notes for your next attempt. They might even end up being people who’ll be willing to write you a support letter later on.
So, no matter what happens, just try to be a decent human being.
In conclusion: this isn’t everything you need to know. These are just the highlights that have occurred to my tired brain. Do your own research, and remember that your local writers’ centre should also maintain a list of funding bodies; some of them might even list upcoming opportunities in a weekly or monthly bulletin. Remember that there are websites to visit, but that you should also make a point to chat (yes, on the phone) with the lovely folk at the funding body just to get a better feel for what they’re looking for, if there are specifically things they won’t fund, etc.
Essentially, if you only take away two things from this article, let them be (a) persist and (b) don’t be an asshole.
Some Funding Bodies of Interest:
Arts Queensland (each state in Australia has some similar body, so do the Google).
The Australia Council for the Arts
The Copyright Council’s Cultural Fund