on funding [repost]

I’m currently sitting in my mate’s flat in Manchester applying for a New Art grant for a pilot run of this project. I figured it might be an idea to re-read an old post I wrote when I was a funder. & then I thought it might be an even nicer idea to re-post it here (and yes, I am absolutely and totally procrastinating ;P). Wish me luck…

A friend asked me to provide some advice about funding since, for some insane reason, I am currently [was] a bureaucrat! I have also been an independent media arts producer for around 14 years so I know the funding world intimately from both sides. Despite all that, it is written off the top of my head on a Sunday afternoon while I’m still getting over flu. It has unexpectedly turned in to a novel, but if I have missed something I’ll add it later, and of course feel free to add tips of your own.

Firstly, the “sad but true” facts

  • There are more people looking for arts funding than the current funding levels (pretty much anywhere in the world) will ever be able to support. I’m not saying expect to fail, but be reasonable about your expectations.
  • The more innovative and cutting edge your project is, the less current grants there will be out there designed precisely for it. Policy NEVER pre-empts innovation, it can only ever respond to it. If you want to help policy change, make awesome projects in your new (or otherwise) area and then document it and put it under their noses so that they can see that it worked, that there’s an audience out there for such things and that it’s generally awesome. And then maybe someone will create a new grant round for people like you and you’ll become a sector developer!

You still want to have a go? Great! So, OK, on to the advice…

Basic funding top-tips

1. There are no hard and fast rules to funding!

Every grant has different reasons for existing, administrative processes, selection teams and overall objectives. Putting the same application document in to every single different process might work in some cases, but is more like putting the same CV with no cover letter in to five different career path job applications; not advisable. Build an overall project document, then tailor every funding application form or cover letter (especially your budget) specifically to that one call.

2. The tick boxes.

Every grant has set criteria (aka “tick boxes”) which must be responded to as articulately as possible. This might seem awfully tedious, but it makes the selection process ‘transparent’ (i.e. when people later complain about why “x” was funded but “y” wasn’t, there are clear reasons behind decisions). Read the guidelines – read everything that is referenced around the grant call – and then consider if or where your project fits in with them. If it doesn’t then it’s probably worth chatting to the people running it anyway (see point 3 below) just in case they know of anything else that might suit you. Something to consider; the people who have set up that project (a government department, a festival, or whatever) are themselves responding to a set of criteria (we all have “tick boxes”) around the program as a whole, or their department objectives for the year. Trying to get to the heart of what the program overall is trying to achieve will help you understand whether your project is likely to be what they are looking for, and where to weight your presentation of the project relative to their grant.

3. Talk to the people running the call.

There are reasons grants are not run by computers. Believe it or not, the people administering the grants are real humans and they (mostly) care passionately about what they are supporting. Your project might not suit that grant round, but it might be absolutely perfect for a totally different one that you might not have seen, or might not be out yet but still suits your timeframe. If you present a brief overview of your project to the people running the grant round (by phone or email) they can give you the best possible advice.

4. Put yourself in the selection team’s shoes.

Remember user-centred design? It works here too. These lovely people are very like you. They work in the arts, are often highly overworked and screamingly underpaid in their day to day existences. Be nice to them… if you play your cards right they might want to work with you in future as well as fund your project! Some specific hints when thinking about the selection team (who are your target audience, for the purposes of this application):

4a) Language

They sometimes come from the same practice as you, but not always. Don’t patronise, but do be aware that you might be writing for an audience who doesn’t understand exactly what you’re talking about, especially if (like much of the world I work in) it’s so new we haven’t actually come up with a proper word for what it is yet. Some great advice is to run your description past your mum. If she understands it (and isn’t in that field herself) then it’s good to go. If she doesn’t understand it then workshop it with her until you find something ‘mum-proof’.

4b) Time

The chances are they will be being paid very little (if anything) to trawl through large numbers of competing applications. The more you help them enjoy the experience of reading your proposal, the more likely they are to want to help you realise your project. I don’t mean cover it in lollipops or stick in a tenner, but keep things brief, articulate, relevant, neat and easy to navigate. And for heaven’s sake…. spell check it!

4c) Scale

Less is more! Academic thesis, business plans… all useful appendix info if you must (or certainly if they are requested). But if you copy/paste a whole chunk of text from another document in to an application form that didn’t ask for it all… well, think how you would feel. Your assessor is reading through large numbers of competing applications, some so arrogant that they expect you to know who they are, or demand you trawl through pages of links to discover their genius. I think some people (fortunately the few) are thinking ‘they will enjoy learning about my whole life’ – well… they won’t. You’ll make them cross, and why would you want to do that when your project hinges on their support?! If you don’t enjoy reading your epic-novel-sized application form, and can’t remember which link in your youtube tagging system was the really REALLY exciting one, why would anyone else? Answer the question and move on. If ‘additional info’ is requested, then you can leave a link to your PhD research and your favourite youtube tag there.

5. The application form, etc.

OK, so you have this amazing idea, you have a team of people (or know where you can probably find one if you have some dosh), you have found a grant that looks like it’s suitable for you, you’ve chatted to the people running it and got some invaluable advice about how to approach it, you’ve considered your audiences (for the application form… but ideally also the audiences for the project!), now it’s time for the hard slog of putting it all on paper. Having said that, invariably these days it’s a completely online process. Draft offline unless the system saves and lets you return later – you are unlikely to get this completed in one sitting and you probably want to run drafts via people as you go. If you have never done this before you might want to speak to some people who have, or even try to get yourself a project manager/producer. It’s not rocket science, and hopefully this document will help fill in some of the blanks in the process, but there really is a certain art to application forms. There’s also a certain mindset of people who manage to complete them well; it’s not for everyone, so don’t be surprised if you end up tearing your hair out and wanting to throw your computer against the wall. (but please don’t.)

5a) the cover letter / app form

  • What is the project – the ‘elevator pitch’ version (in other words, if you had 30seconds between floors in a lift, how would you describe your project to someone who knows nothing about it?).
  • How does the project respond to that specific grant call (answer each of the criteria succinctly and articulately, no academic thesis required).
  • Who you are (individually or as a team plus project partners) and why you reckon you have the ability to actually pull all this off.
  • Q&A – have they asked you to respond to anything specifically in the guidelines? Then do so, even if it feels pedantic. Don’t just copy/paste the overly long project description, your assessor will be able to tell the difference…

5b) the project document 

Remember your audience – your assessor might have never ever heard of your art form or practice or that technological gadget, or scientific discovery… so explain everything in layman’s terminology with images and supporting material as far as you possibly can. Now describe whatever is relevant to the project. That has to start with what this project is (longer than the elevator pitch, but still not a thesis or a quotation from your favourite practitioner), how it works, who the team are (briefly, all bio/cv/etc should be in an appendix), what the audience’s experience is anticipated to be, what research elements are, what production elements are, where it will take place, over what period, what support you have from elsewhere, how they are helping you. Where it comes from as an idea can be interesting but isn’t always relevant.

5c) the audience 

Astonishingly, people forget this part all the time. It can be so exciting just making the art that we can forget who will be on the receiving end. Think deeply about your audience before you start making anything; who are they (refer to user-centred design, again)?; where will they hear about your event/experience?; what is their motivation to attend or interact with it? How can you help them to have the best possible experience and how will you document that (surveys, video interviews, photos of people looking engaged…)? If you’re charging them for entry, make sure you include any projected income in your budget but be realistic. Some people believe that not charging for an event means your audience are less committed and so less likely to turn up, others believe charging will just be a barrier for them to want to engage. If you’re not sure talk to people who are likely to be your target audience… they will invariably tell you if they would pay to experience whatever it is you’re looking to throw at them, and how much. Market Research (which is what this is) might sound boring and businessey, but it’s incredibly useful and makes great sense in any capacity, profit or non-profit. Knowing your audience engenders trust in any funder, be they investment, grant, bank, or your family.

5d) the budget 

Many forms will have a template that they demand you use. This will drive you insane if you’re breaking up your application across many different funders, because each will break theirs down slightly differently. My advice here is that you have one central budget in your project document that you do in the way you feel most comfortable with, with a note on what parts you are requesting from where. Then you also enter those elements in to the respective application forms in the way they ask for it. Messy, but effective (think lego…).

Expenditure

Be realistic. We know the arts can be expensive and yet we mainly seem to manage making our dreams a reality on the cost of a postage stamp (albeit drenched in blood, sweat and tears). Selection teams are generally experienced in producing projects, they have a fair idea how much things cost and analyse the budgets in assessments. If you’ve included something that looks suspicious, either justify it to explain why it’s so outrageous, or accept that it might damage the overall application.

Don’t get angry that there isn’t enough money to go around, get creative with what you can get from every single source available. Can you break your project up in to segments that might fit different sections of different grants from different sources? Sure it makes your application process harder, more complex to monitor, and more high-risk overall, but sometimes that’s the best way. If you do, just be sure to not ‘double-dip’ (asking for the same costs to be covered by two different grant rounds) – funders do due-diligence, we can find out if you are trying to cheat the system and it’s a small world with long memories…

Consider the program as a whole. Most projects could achieve ‘this’ if they had $5,000 behind them, but your dream is to spend $40,000 and make “THIS!”. You need to decide where you want to frame your proposal, no administrator can advise how much you should ask for. Most guidelines will explain what the maximum amount available is for the entire grant round, with an indication of how much, maximum, you can ask for.

Partnerships are awesome! If you have a six-week residential process before the big event, then contact hotels or local caterers or artist studios for some kind of discount or (ideally) sponsorship. If you’ve thoroughly considered your audience and you have some clear branding opportunities for them, this is much easier. Sponsorship thinking is a whole other document, but any and all relevant partnerships really help to build the value of your project and your proposal.

Co-productions between different countries are definitely possible, but (obviously) have specific requirements. If an Australian artist is applying for a project which will take place in Spain, the funder might want to know what experience an Australian audience might have. If something is made in Australia but toured internationally, it’s unlikely an Australian funder would cover those offshore costs. But it’s all up for discussion with the person running the grant round.

If you’re a new artist/group/org and you don’t have a track record, then don’t ask for the top whack to fund your entire project, that’s unlikely to be successful. Look for what kind of other support you can get from other places (see partnerships, above) and ask for smaller amounts to build your portfolio.

In-kind is sometimes considered as ‘cash value’, but not always. If it is, then it needs to appear in both your income and expenditure columns. You should bear in mind that arts funding is there to support the art and artists, so if your application features in-kind support from 10 artists and all the costs are being spent on hardware for your organisation, or a hotel suite for three weeks just for you and your family… well, it’s just not a good look.

Capital costs are generally not allowed anyway. If the technology/etc is something that is required for the delivery of this piece (by which I mean ‘a netbook which is rigged to the ceiling to stream the performance live for 8 hours a day over ten weeks’, rather than ‘purchasing an edit suite’) then maybe. But you’re pretty much expected to have a computer and the software licenses to fulfil the basics of your chosen career obligations.

Itemise the costs using basic common sense. Include where it’s an estimate or actual cost and provide quotations on the more expensive items (ideally 3 quotes per item to show research and value for money).

Sadly a digital project grant often just goes straight to some service provider who does all the clever magic stuff. While, yes, this does achieve the project objectives, and yes is often an allowable project expense, do please try to consider the long-term value to you as an artist (or your team/organisation). Long term legacy is a much more valuable outcome. Can you work directly with the company to learn from them as you develop? That might change the dynamics of the relationship and cost you more, or it might lead to an exciting conversation about partnerships. Also, a good hint (learned painfully from someone I funded recently) is to not pay the service provider all the grant in one lump sum up front. Often a commercial agency, as excited they are at the start, can get waylaid by other, higher paying projects. If you have their cash they will treat you with better respect. Hopefully.

Include a contingency. Some people feel that’s cheeky, like you’re asking for a little bit extra when it’s hard enough to get what you really need. But trust me, you really need a contingency. This is more a piece of running advice than funding advice, but it’s maybe relevant (or interesting) here; it certainly has proven to be a great model. For bigger projects where I’m an Executive Producer, I allocate a departmental budget each with its own contingency. Then I have an overall production budget that also has its own contingency. At the departmental meetings I’ll get each department head to give me an update on their budgets so I know how things are looking, where we have some give and where we’re likely to have some increased demands. Then where necessary I can either negotiate re-allocations or pull from the overall contingency.

Income

Are you charging for anything, if so include any anticipated income here, but be mindful of your cashflow (are you expecting to spend money in production that you’re unlikely to see until after the event?) and whether that money is realistically likely to come in. I have run projects where we have changed our minds on charging for something, but having a contingency meant I could make that choice without damaging the project. I simply had to report back with why I’d made that decision and how I had re-adjusted the budgets accordingly.

What are you asking for from this grant round? Not just what amount from the overall cost of the project, but what will you spend that on? Make sure those items are relevant to the grant round. In other words, if you’re applying to a ‘new audiences’ grant but trying to spend it on costumes for your actors, you are unlikely to be successful.

Avoid ‘double-dipping’. For example, you might be applying for theatrical production costs from the Australia Council for the Arts, but be producing a documentary film around its production from Screen Australia. If those film elements were always intended to be used in the show as creative content, there could be some tricky conversations later.

Some grants are ‘free’ and some are ‘investment’. Most Australia Council grants don’t ask for any kind of ROI (return on investment) but some screen agency grants might ask for a percentage of IP (intellectual property) on the product. The more clearly you define what funds you’re asking to cover, the more control you will have over what you do and don’t have to share further down the track.

More about cultural economy than project grants, but it’s worth looking in to any kind of tax breaks that might be offered by your country. These won’t be available until much later (so build that in to your cashflow expectations) but they can really help to keep your organisation afloat, and are especially useful if you get in to conversations about sponsorship – maybe their investment to you is tax deductable, so they win twice!

5e) evaluation 

It’s not always requested, but it’s a good practice to consider how you would evaluate your project, especially if it’s experimental or breaking some sort of new ground. Set yourself goals – what did you expect to achieve, and what did you then actually achieve? What audiences did you expect and how many did you actually get? If you keep track of lessons learned during each project you’ll become a much stronger producer and you’ll have a bunch of data to include in future applications to prove growth. It’s also really sexy to include in your acquittal (see below).

5f) appendices 

These generally cover the stuff that it’s useful to know but aren’t vital to include in the body of the application form. Sometimes specific items are requested in the guidelines, so check that to be sure. Include any supporting research which might have preceded the idea, any people involved with it (both your team as CVs or biographies, and your project partners – get them to write you a brief letter/email of support). You can also provide a business plan if it’s that kind of grant but usually an arts project grant wouldn’t ask for one.

Online supporting material is increasingly common. No longer are you required to send showreels, portfolio etc work in hard copy or on DVD. Instead, you are asked to provide a link to your website or other online supporting material. If so, then make this really easy for the person who is desperately trying to find reason in your chaos. It’s a really smart move to make a landing page designed specifically for the purpose, password-protected if need be. In there, include your branding, your elevator pitch summary of the project, then a list of links which are explained. You might know that all those youtube clips show the most incredible audience feedback (worth its weight in gold), but give your assessor a bit of help… tell them what time in the clip, or better – just make them a clip with the important highlights. And when I say ‘clip’ i mean 2-3 minutes per clip with only a couple of clips in total. Max. (ref point 3 above).

6. If accepted… the acquittal.

Most people hate the acquittal; I know I used to. This is where, after months of killing yourself trying to keep this monster of a project alive when everything out there seemed to want you to fail, when sickness and broken technology … actually, it’s not always that bad, but you are generally totally exhausted and the last thing you want to do is go back to your original application form and explain why things changed, how, and what the budget differences are.

6a) Some advice I call “organised slackness”: 
Set things in place right at the start so that you don’t need to think to much right at the end.

  • Try to keep a project diary. It might feel like extra tasks in a busy day, but it’ll help you grab moments of realisation or nicely phrased learnings to copy/paste later.
  • If you have a good evaluation plan you will have set up some goals. Go back to them and note quickly how you matched up to them, what you learned… and move on.
  • You should ideally have set up a reasonable book keeping system to manage your cashflow. These days, just for my personal accounting, I use an iPhone application so I can log my transactions as required. You can set these up so they track a particular budget, so you can enter what you expected to spend at the start, enter each item as you go through, monitor as you go to catch any potential bumps and re-allocate contingency, and then see easily at the end how you faired.

6b) Document EVERYTHING.

Document what you did, who with, how, why, how much you expected it to cost, how much it actually cost, what worked, what didn’t, how many audience members you expected, how many actually showed up, what they said about the experience, how much online engagement you generated for the project, what you will do differently next time, what you’d like to do next.

Show sketches of designs in progress, audio/video/stills of the process, key meetings, rehearsals….. If you don’t use it in your final report then that’s fine, but you will have this stuff for later use. You might not feel like you ever want to see it again, but you will one day thank yourself for having this material. Especially when it comes to archiving your career when you’re famous and everyone wants those memoirs…

6c) Things change. 

We all know this, don’t worry that your project changes shape a bit as things go, just explain why in your final report. If, however, you end up with a project that’s entirely different to the one you were funded for, well, that’s not great and you should ideally have spoken to your funder about those changes en route.

6d) Do it quickly, like tearing off a plaster. 

I have never heard a single person talk positively about this last stage. But just get it done. Once you have, the relief is palpable, you can feel the weight lift, you can move on to a new project with a clear head, and in many cases you get the final chunk of funding that was staggered at the start. What’s more important is that it’s a key commitment within the contract – if you don’t you might be taken to court to pay back the whole grant, and you certainly can’t apply for any other money while that report is outstanding. So just get on with it before you take the rest that you know you need, so you can relax properly.

7. If rejected.

7a) Be nice. 

It can be difficult to be objective where money is concerned. Application forms take a great deal of time and practice to get right. Getting rejected hurts. Remember that many administrators are also artists and they understand your pain. I have worked with officers (many years ago, not here) who were stalked, sent threatening phone calls and we had to check their mail for dead rats (etc) in some cases… Seriously, these people are humans who are trying to help develop the sector, they do not deserve such hate. Ask why your project didn’t get selected this time (see below), learn from that and move on.

7b) Accept feedback.

You will usually be invited to ask for feedback after a certain timeline. That might be hard to take, but it’s a really good thing to if you want to try again in future. Invariably the reasons (which seems cliched because they are so frequently heard) are:

  • there were a large number of projects in the grant round and yours just didn’t fit the criteria as well as others.
  • the selection team had a concern about x/y/z area of the project, but suggest you develop that (perhaps offering suggestions of how/where to get more help) and re-apply next round.

8. Summary.

Basically, just get on with it. The answers are in the questions, just stop to think what they need to know rather than blindly rush ahead with what you think you want to tell them. Oh and if this has in any way been helpful, link to it*. You might think you’re helping the competition… and you probably are. But we need more support for this sector as a whole. With better skilled creative producers out there we will be able to build a case for why doing things creatively is awesome. Hell, maybe we’ll even increase the amount policy makers (and audiences) feel they want to invest for the privilege of living in a happy, healthy, communicative and extremely sexy cultural world.

*but don’t publish it in a book and then make a shedload of money out of it without at very least first asking my permission.

Disclaimer: I do did work for the Australia Council for the Arts at the time of writing this, but this is neither a ‘how to apply to Australia Council’ guide, neither do I accept any responsibility for the outcomes of any grant proposals written using these tips (unless they’re successful…). They’re just my own personal lessons that I’ve built up from the last 14 plus years, and are based on a hell of a lot of common sense. And yes, I have been successful in my grant applications, mostly. However, if you do become rich from using my processes, well, good on you and please go help someone else in return.
[originally posted via whitu.net in 2010]