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How to write a successful grant application

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Brooke Boland

15 steps to writing the grant application that has the best chance of bringing home the money you need.
How to write a successful grant application

Image: shutterstock.com 

Many arts organisations survive largely on the strength of their proposals and ​the success of grant applications so it's essential to write them in a way that grabs attention and ticks all the boxes. ArtsHub asked professional grant writers Rebekah Duke from Duchess Creative and Rebecca Lister, freelance writer and  Artistic Director of Anvil Productions for their advice .

1. Research the options

Don't go straight to the first grant giver you have in mind. Instead survey the field, taking in everything from t​he Australia Council and Catalyst to state bodies, local councils and philanthropic trusts. Banks, large corporate organisations and even some educational and health institutions offer grants. Make sure you know what is on offer and what kinds of projects they fund. Don't just read their funding guidelines, try to get a sense of what motivates the grant giver and what will appeal to those on the judging panel 

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2.  Start early

Even if the final guidelines for the next round have not been released, you can begin working on your application and use the previous round's structure as a guideline. 

Duke recommends for major funding rounds, ​think at least six to twelve months out.

3. Sign up to mailing lists

At the risk of blowing our own trumpet, don't miss ArtsHub bulletins and keep a watch on our social sites. New opportunities and grants are announced erratically and you don't want to miss them.

In addition sign up to niche industry sites such as APRA|AMCOS, NAVA and Regional Arts Victoria. And read the mail. 

4. Assess yourself

Be honest with yourself. Is your idea solid, or do you need to spend some more time on it before applying for a grant? Talk to friends or a professional advisor and make sure you are ready to apply. Don't blow the opportunity by asking before your idea is sufficiently developed.

Lister said she often finds applicants who come to her need more thinking or structuring time before they are ready to apply for a grant. 

‘Sometimes after the first conversation I will say to people, "You need to flesh your idea out more before you begin applying for money”. Sometimes people just have the beginning of an idea - or they have a full blown project idea but the project really needs to be broken into stages,’ she said.

 5. Read the criteria carefully

It's the oldest advice in the book but grant givers are constantly frustrated by how often it is ignored. 

‘Sometimes people are so excited about an idea that they forget to look at the selection criteria,’ said Lister. 

‘They go for the first category that they see rather than searching around and trying to determine which category or funding body is most suitable for their project.’  

6. Be rigorous with your budget 

Having a realistic and detailed budget is crucial. It not only shows you have a realistic idea of what the project involves but gives evidence to the grant giver that you are not just a flaky creative but someone able to manage practical detail. Price all equipment, venues and human resources.

And make sure it balances. 

7. Pick up the phone

Websites provide masses of information and don't frustrate people by asking for information that is already out there. But there is nothing like personal contact to get a feel for how a grant giver is approaching a given criteria.

‘Don't be afraid to ring the funding body for clarification - but do this a few weeks out from the application due date - not the day before,’ said Lister. 

8. Use the right keywords

Being aware of the language used in your sector and how you describe your work is important, said Lister. 

‘There are certain words that are in vogue at certain times e.g. leverage, inclusion, process, product, collaboration, etc. - certain words are used in certain sectors.  I am more familiar with the language used in the arts and human services sectors so try to determine what sort of language people are using so that the grant fits within their framework.’

9. Consider a professional grant writer

You may decide to hire a grant writer to work on the application for you. If you do, Lister advises meeting with them in person at the beginning of the process. 

‘When the applicant meets with the grant writer it gives them an opportunity to also bounce ideas around.  Sometimes an applicant might have a great idea but they have not thought it through fully and in that verbal meeting ideas can be fleshed out.’ 

But make sure you send the writer information before the meeting so they can be prepared. ‘I also find it is helpful to know exactly who the applicant is applying to, i.e. which funding body and which category and prior to any meeting I try to have a look at the application guidelines and the selection criteria.’ 

10. Try this writing exercise 

‘Most funding bodies receive far more applications than they can ever fund so it is important the applicant be as clear as possible from the outset as to what they are asking for and why,’ said Lister.

To help she advises a writing exercise to help applicants clarify the focus of their project.

‘I will ask the applicant to describe in one sentence what their project is about, one paragraph and then perhaps two to three paragraphs.  This forces the applicant to distil what they are thinking and get to the guts of it. The basic questions such as What, Where, Why, Who and How can be used for these short paragraph exercises.

11. Follow Orwell’s rules

George Orwell set some clear guidelines for writing that can be applied to grant writing. They are:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.

Lister adds the following: 

‘No banging on, no bullshit, no long winded really clever answers accompanied by extended attached notes.  Sometime applicants feel that they have to justify what they are writing about and they try to do that by writing in a more academic or complicated way.  If you don’t understand what you are writing your reader won’t either.  Break the language down into the most accessible form.

12. Grab attention

You have a very short window before an assessor's eyes glaze over. This is not the time to outline your organisational history.

‘Some people swear by the interesting opening sentences - something that immediately takes the reader directly to the work - almost like a piece of narrative.  Some people find it is easier to just get into outlining what their project is about and then possibly go to something more creative.  The important thing is that the opening sentence has to grab the reader - regardless of what it is - it needs to be well written, clear, and confident,’ said Lister.

13. Let the project lead

‘Many people tend to go out and chase the money once they hear that grants are available, but the best projects tend to be the ones which the artist has already committed to undertaking, whether that’s a tour, a recording, creation of a new performed work, a publicity campaign etc. There’s usually already some planning and research undertaken by the artist and they’re able to submit a strong application for a grant that suits the project and the timelines, rather than rushing to pull together an application just because they could use the cash,’ said Duke.

14. Ask a ​favour

‘I highly recommend having someone proofread your application – even just having a friend read through your bio or summaries to make sure you’ve clearly articulated what you want to do. A good grant writer can also help you navigate the application and assist with communicating exactly what you want to create and how you’ll go about it,’ said Duke.

It's even better if your reader doesn't know anything about the work, said Lister. 

'If someone who does not know the sector or the project that you are writing about can make sense of it then you are on the right track.'

15. Mind the format

So many applications today are submitted online so make sure that you are answering the questions within the required word or character length, said Lister.  

‘I often write my applications in a Word document first and then cut and paste into the electronic form - but sometimes the specified word limit is actually a character limit and you will have more words than the electronic form can take.  I have read applications where the sentence just stops in the middle and I know it is because someone has just cut and pasted the info in and has not checked the word or character length.’  

About the author

Brooke Boland is a Melbourne-based freelance writer. She recently completed her PhD on gender, translation and women's writing and has tutored undergraduates at Victoria University and the University of NSW.

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