Grants are another way for artists to bring in financial resources. Unlike crowdfunding, grants are sums of money given by foundations, nonprofits, or other institutions to applicants or specifically-selected individuals or groups. Whereas crowdfunding depends on smaller donations from individuals in your own social network, grants are larger sums of money from institutions.
To receive grant funding, you need to apply and then be selected by the judging committee.
Grants can be for small amounts of money or large sums. They can be for specific projects or for general operations. Grants might be for set amounts of money and for a set number of applicants, or they could be portions of a larger overall grant budget, awarded as the committee overseeing applications sees fit.
There are even matching grants which are designed as incentives to help you raise even more money. For example, a funder could offer to donate up to $25,000 if you hit $5,000 in donations from first-time donors or they could match up to $10,000 in donations.
Some grants will require very detailed reporting back to the funding institution to show how you’ve spent money, others will give more of a carte blanche. All of this will depend on the institution or organization that is offering the grant.
Some grants are only available to artists or creative projects that have particular tax statuses, like 501(c)(3) status or partnership with a fiscal sponsor.
Who Offers Grants
Different kinds of institutions offer grants to artists and arts organizations.
Government: Government bodies are granting institutions. Governmental granting bodies can represent the national government, state government, city government, or as targeted as neighborhood grants. For example, New York City funds projects and organizations working on health and human services, arts and education, and more.
Nonprofits: Many nonprofits are also granting institutions. Nonprofits distribute grants as a way of furthering their own missions. If, for example, a nonprofit’s mission is about increasing arts education in a particular city, they might give a grant to an arts organization that partners with schools to host workshops, classes, and performances. Artadia seeks to elevate the careers of artists and to do that they offer unrestricted grant funding to artists.
Foundations: Foundations, ranging from large foundations like the Ford Foundation or smaller family foundations offer grants. Foundations often have several different categories or issues that they give funding or grants to. For example, a family foundation might have funding priorities in line with the founder of the grant to keep that person’s legacy alive. The Doris Duke Charitable Fund funds projects and organizations whose work is related to the arts, medical research, child-wellbeing, and more.
Corporations: For-profit companies and corporations sometimes have associated nonprofits or philanthropic arms. This can be for a lot of reasons. Some corporations want to give back to their communities or support issues that are important to them. Some just want good publicity. For example, Walmart has a foundation that funds projects related to environmental sustainability, community, and racial justice.
Knowing that there are grants out there, the next question is… how do you find them? Grant research is an important part of fundraising for artists. Here’s how to get started:
Identify Funding Buckets
When you think about applying for funding, think about every angle that might link you up with a funding institution. Create “buckets” to streamline your search.
Some of these buckets will be identity-based. Consider factors like gender, sexuality, nationality, age, disability, veteran status, or immigration status. Another funding bucket will be your location. Grants can be location-specific. That might mean your region (Pacific Northwest, Midwest, Southwest), your county, city, or even neighborhood. An obvious bucket is your creative medium. There are grants available for film, sculpture, textiles, ceramics, jewelry, and more. You should also consider your mission, or overall goal, as a potential bucket for grants. Your overarching mission might align with the mission statement of a nonprofit, museum, or other funding institution.
Then, once you have several category buckets, start Googling! You’ll want to search for funding opportunities related to each of those buckets individually, but also in combination with one another.
For example, say you are a Brooklyn-based woman looking to fund a feature-length movie about a medieval Christian mystic. You will want to look for grants for women, for Brooklyn and New York City artists, for filmmakers, and for art about religious figures, for starters. You can then combine these buckets to look for grants for women filmmakers, for New York City women, for filmmakers making work about religious figures.
Combining buckets lets you turn up more grant opportunities and will result in better grant prospects for you. The more points of connection you have with a grant, the stronger your case will be as an applicant.
Learn Who Actually Funds Projects Like Yours
Once you’ve amassed a list of grant opportunities based on the bucket and bucket combination strategy, you can dig a little bit to see who those institutions have previously funded.
The first step is to see which grants are a good fit for who you are and the kind of work you make. The next step is to see which of those possible grants have actually funded artists like you and projects like yours.
Nonprofits make information about who they fund publicly available through a 990 form. You can find 990 forms for many nonprofits on Candid to see how they allocated their grants. You can also check the nonprofits’ websites to see if they list previously funded projects.
Additionally, you do this in the reverse and see which institutions have funded artists like you.
Make a list of artists or arts organizations that are similar to you – peers, colleagues, people whose work you admire. Then, search their websites to see if they mention support from funding institutions. They might mention receiving grants in their CVs, or in a thank-you note for a particular program or piece that they completed.
Searching in reverse can help you find opportunities that might not show up otherwise.
When you look for comparable artists, make sure that they really are comparable. If you’re looking for a grant to help you produce a play at your local theater, a very famous playwright like Jeremy O. Harris won’t be a fruitful comparison at this moment in your career.
Build a Calendar of Grants
Once you have a list of grants that are a potential fit for you, organize them into a calendar so you know how to prioritize your time and energy.
The work of securing funding for your art is ongoing, long work. It’s not just about finding the right grant to apply to in a given week or month. Presumably, you’ll want to seek funding at future points in your career. You can make it easier for your future self by keeping track of the most relevant grants for your work regardless of deadline. That way, whenever you decide to apply for grants in the future, you’ll already have a good amount of legwork out of the way.
This can be part of your year-round fundraising strategy.
Talking About Your Art in a Grant Application
In order to successfully receive grant funding, you have to be able to talk about your art in a clear and compelling way.
Avoid overly academic or flowery language in your grant applications. Academic or abstract phrasing might be true ways of describing your work, and how you relate to it. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best way to describe your work to potential funders. When you think about describing your art in a grant application, you have to think about your audience and your goal.
It’s easy to think that in order to make your art seem serious and therefore appealing to funders, you have to make it seem complicated or heavily intellectual but funders are actually looking for more concrete descriptions of your work.
Start with the simplest description possible, for example, “an evening-length dance performance”, “a large-scale multimedia installation”, or “a theatrical production.” Then lead the reader to the more conceptual portions of the work. This allows people to better understand your work and connect to the higher concepts.
When you are applying for a grant, a funder needs to know the very basics of your work. In a grant application, make sure you are answering the “who, what, when, where, why, and how” questions about your work. Funders need specific, concrete information about the projects and the artists they are potentially funding because they are beholden to others. Funders need to demonstrate to their board of directors, their communities, their constituencies that the money they are granting out is going to support their overarching mission.
We recommend that you explain your project out loud before you start writing so that you’ll have a more natural, conversational flow before you start typing. You might even want to record yourself speaking or practice in front of a friend who isn’t as embedded in the art world as you are.
Once you have a strong draft of your application, read it out loud or share it with a non-artist friend. Does it make sense to them?
And, above all, as you draft a grant application, write it for a reader who likes art, who is curious and smart, but perhaps not an expert in the field (let alone your particular medium).
Grant Application Questions
Every grant will have slightly different requirements and different questions that they ask. But some questions will crop up again and again on grant applications. Thinking through them ahead of time will help you answer more confidently as you apply for grant funding.
- How will the grant funds be used? For this question, address both the operational aspect of your expenses but also be sure to connect it to how the expenses will help you achieve your goal and your mission.
- How will you define success? Funders want to see that you have thought about what success looks like and how you can determine if you’ve gotten there. Let the funder know the specific metrics you plan to use to track the progress and success of your mission.
- Who are the key collaborators? Grantmakers often ask for bios or resumes of key staff or collaborators, or they may just ask you to list the names of the people you’ll be working with. Funders like to know who’s involved with the organization, and get a sense for their qualifications and background.
- What will you do if you don’t receive funding? This one’s tough. It kind of feels like a trick question: if you tell the funder you can still make your work without their support, why would you need them? Similarly, if you tell them you can’t make the work without them, they might lose faith in your ability to make it happen at all. Show the funder that their support is essential, but also that you’re resilient and will find a way to make the work no matter what.
- What is your budget narrative? This can be an opportunity to clarify specific aspects of your budget, like unusual line items or in-kind contributions. You can also use this field to explain how your budget figures were calculated — whether they were based on past income/expenses for your company or research into typical expenses for similar organizations.You can also use this field to discuss other funding sources, like ticket sales or individual donations, as well as list other institutional funders you may be reaching out to.
- How will your work further the mission of the granting body? When applying for a grant, try to put yourself in the shoes of the funder and imagine the kind of information they might need to know and why. This kind of consideration will strengthen your application tremendously, helping the funder see not only how your organization will achieve its mission, but also how your success will help them achieve theirs.
Improve Your Grant Applications
Grant applications can be challenging and frustrating. And, in a lot of ways, they are challenging for the same reasons that job applications are challenging.
There’s no magic bullet to help you get every grant you apply for, but there are some general do’s and don’ts we can share.
For a more successful grant application:
- Pay attention to the idiosyncrasies: Each different funder will be unique. They might have specific formatting requirements or ways that they describe the work that they want to support. Even though multiple funders might theoretically want to fund your project, they might want to do so for different reasons or as part of different overall missions. By paying attention to what makes individual grants unique, you will demonstrate that you’re truly keyed in to what the funder is looking for, which will make for a stronger overall application.
- Research funders: Look at their websites, their mission statement, and their past 990s. See who they’ve funded in the past. By researching funders, you’ll be able to get a real sense of whether your project is actually the kind of thing that they are likely to support. If it doesn’t seem like a good fit, it might not be worth your time to apply.
- Don’t change your plans to fit a grant: While it’s fine to highlight different aspects of your work for different funders, we don’t recommend radically shifting your focus in order to get funding. By changing your project to fit a grant, you’ll end up spending more energy trying to fit into what a given grant wants than you should. Shifting your plans to match a grant will pull you further away from your vision and suck up time that you could use to find a better partnership.
- Think of grants like partnerships: You might think of a grant like a one-way street where you are benefiting from the largesse of a foundation or a corporation. But a better way to think about grants is to consider them as a partnership. You are looking for partners, not for benefactors.
- Ask questions of funders: Asking questions will set you up to be in a stronger position if you apply for a grant from that institution. It can also help you network more broadly. People who work for funders often know other people who work for different funders. If through conversation with a funder you determine that you aren’t a good fit for one another, they might be able to point you in a different direction.
- Match a funder’s language in your application: You can improve your grant applications by noting how a funder writes and then using that to inform how you write your application.Are they very formal and professional? Are they more casual and conversational? What keywords keep coming up? If you can demonstrate through your language that your work intersects with theirs in a meaningful way, your application will be stronger as a result.
Avoid Grant Application Missteps
Just like there are grant best practices, there are also some common grant application mistakes we’ve seen artists and arts organizations make.
- Fancy formatting in your grant application: Many grant applications require you to submit materials into an application portal rather than attaching documents. If you have added a lot of bullet points, highlighted text, hyperlinks, or other creative formatting, you might have to undo all of that when you submit it into the portal.
- Excessive hyperlinking: The hyperlink function might not work within the constraints of the application portal or the reviewer might be looking at a printed out version of the application. If you include hyperlinks, you run the risk of the link not working and then the question not being answered at all.
- “See above” responses: When you encounter questions that feel repetitive, we encourage you to think about the subtle ways that they might be getting at different issues. Plus, you don’t know in what order someone is reviewing your application.
- Describing your work in a confusing way: The person reviewing your application needs to be able to quickly understand what kind of work you make and what you are proposing as a project.
- Recycling the same grant application: If you’re applying for a lot of grants, you’ll end up repeating a lot of information from application to application. But we encourage you to customize your information from grant to grant. By crafting a specific application for each grant, you can show funders reading your application that you are serious about their specific opportunity and allows you to truly demonstrate that your work is a good fit for their mission.
- Airing personal frustrations: You can certainly acknowledge the struggles you’ve faced, especially as they might relate to systemic lack of access to resources or as they relate to the funder’s mission. But try to steer clear of personal bitterness or even score-settling. It ends up making you less appealing to funders.
- Asking for too much money: If you ask for more than you need, or ask for the exact maximum amount that a funder will give to a project, you run the risk of looking like you’re just there to take them for all that they’re worth rather than establishing a mutually beneficial partnership. If you ask for a funder to fund your project in its entirety, you can appear to be without community support (which can serve as an indicator of public interest and eventual audience).
- No backup plan: Funders want to see that you can restructure your vision to accommodate a smaller budget or that you can find support from other sources. They want to see that you are creative, flexible, and dedicated to your vision.
- Unclear metrics of success: Are you sending surveys? Collecting information about tickets sold or the number of people you’ve reached? In order to make your grant applications as compelling as possible, you’ll need to figure out what success looks like for your project and how you can measure it in a meaningful way.
- Avoiding demographic information as a white artist: Face demographic questions head on; acknowledge who you are and who your audience is. If you aren’t happy with the honest answer to a question about demographics, you can use it as an opportunity to figure out how to decenter whiteness in your work.