When you are applying for grants, it can feel a bit like you’re trying to solve a mysterious puzzle without knowing what the final image is supposed to be. Many writers begin to make some false assumptions as they stumble through the dark.

Advice & Experience from Sarah

So many organizations come to us asking “what do funders want!?” This is as fruitful as asking what all women or men want. Funders can be as different as individuals, which is important to keep in mind. You should always be gathering as much information as possible on the specific funder you are approaching, from their website, 990, and, ideally, a phone conversation. One key piece of information is to uncover how the funder selects their grants.

Funders may select their funded applications in a variety of ways. Many smaller, family foundations are Board driven: the Board themselves do much of the work of reading applications, bringing in organizations they are interested in funding, and making awards. Other funders have the Program Officers really take the lead, reviewing applicants and making referrals for Board or leadership approval. Then, there are others that have panels of industry professionals and/or laypeople to judge the grants. That is where we’re focusing today.

Grants panels can come in many different shapes and sizes. Personally, I’ve sat on panels where:

  • All panelists but one worked in the industry, and we were held very strictly to the grant criteria and written application. We could assume nothing about the applicant except what was written on the page, no matter our professional knowledge. The Program Officers could not pass judgement on the applications, but only guided the process.
  • All panelists were not from the city, but did work in the arts. We were allowed to do our own research into the applicant’s website, and were asked to be generous in our reading. Program Officers helped fill in gaps in knowledge, and encouraged us to fund as many organizations as possible.
  • Most panelists were new to grants panels, and the application itself was rather short. The Program Officers were helping us make judgements, while also using the panel as an opportunity for the readers to learn about the process.

When you are writing for a panel, it’s still very important to get as much information as you can from grant guidelines and program officers. What is their goal with this grant? A grant focused on public good is going to be judged differently than one focused on artistic excellence, and your writing and work samples should reflect that.

You should not assume that the panelists will be able to assume anything about your work, and write as though they are a layperson. For example, If the application asks how art is chosen, don’t just say “the Artistic Director selects the project.” Write what criteria the Artistic Director uses to make that judgement.

Below, a few people on our team at Benvenuti Arts discuss their experience sitting on foundation Boards or panels to give you an idea of the different ways your grant could be judged. If you’re interested in learning more on this topic, I hope you’ll join our first ever BA Conversation on January 19, where Rosalind Grush (recent Co-Artistic Director of The Tank in New York City) and Sarah will discuss their own experiences both writing for and sitting on grants panels, particularly the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs panel.

In addition, if you sign up for the Benvenuti Arts Membership this month, you’ll receive a one-page grant panel exercise that can help you understand the process if you’ve never had a chance to sit on one yourself. Our Members get monthly resources like this and others, as well as time with us for projects and meetings throughout the year. I hope you’ll check it out!

Now onto the team!

Sticky notes on a window

Advice & Experience from Julie

Being a trustee for Awesome Foundation DC is a truly rewarding, unconventional, and FUN experience. We are an entirely volunteer-driven organization and completely self-funded by trustees’ own money. Every month, we read about 30-40 grants and then gather for our meeting where we vote on 5-7 finalists, and award a $1,000 grant to someone doing awesome things in the DC community.

We have 4 evaluation criteria we use when deciding who will receive that month’s grant:

#1 – Is it awesome? (Is it unique? Interesting? Impactful? There’s all sorts of types of awesome. And this is totally subjective!)
#2 – Does it directly benefit the city of Washington DC? (We put heavy weight on supporting our tiny city/state and the awesomeness within. So, not Northern Virginia or Maryland)
#3 – Will $1,000 make an actual impact? (Some organizations are super-well funded so we focus on helping individuals and small groups to fund new, small but mighty projects that $1,000 will actually make a difference.)
#4 – Is it immediately actionable? (Similar to the actual impact, we heavily prefer projects that are a month or two away, so that the money can create immediate awesome impact in the community. If a project is a year away, we encourage people to wait to apply for a better chance at getting the grant.)

We then use a unique system in our chapter – sticky notes! – to vote on the finalists each month. Each trustee gets 2 sticky notes (pink is worth 1 full point; yellow is worth ½ point). We put our stickies under the finalist who we believe fits the above 4 criteria the best. We then have a “positive” round, where we can advocate for your grantee of choice. Then, you get an opportunity to move your sticky notes if you get persuaded by a fellow trustee.

Next comes a round of “concerns” – issues you want to raise about particular finalists you see – perhaps they’re not located in DC proper, or they are already extremely well-funded. Then one more opportunity to move your stickies, at which point we will typically have a winner (with the majority of stickies!)

We notify the winner and we also see if there are other non-cash ways that we as trustees can do to help the finalists who did not get the grant money. This is a wonderful part of the night; to witness various trustees calling out connections they may have that would help amplify those other finalists or help them take the next step towards making their idea a reality. The winner is notified and then we deliver their $1k in cash to them in a brown paper bag! No kidding! 

This is obviously a very non-traditional judging/granting process (to say the least!) but the mission of Awesome Foundation is to fund the weird, small, gutsy little projects that likely otherwise would not get funded (and wouldn’t get off the ground without us.) Another way our grants differ from almost many other foundations is that ours are “no strings attached” – we don’t require reporting of our grantees.

We also really look for projects that we can help launch — that may help grow the idea from an acorn into an oak tree. If you want to see some examples of that, check out The Funk Parade (which is now an annual DC event!) and The Shape Up (a project which brings licensed counselors into barber shops, offering group therapy sessions.)

There are 88 Awesome Foundation chapters in 13 countries — so if you’re curious about sitting in on a one of a kind granting process — reach out to a Dean of any chapter (we love guests)! Awesome is a non-intimidating, great way to get your foot in the door of grant paneling/board sitting.

a hand painting a picture with watercolors

Advice & Experience from Adriana

Sitting on panels is a communal exercise: more often than not, panelists are understanding and willing to give out as much support as they can – especially when panelists adjudicating the grant are players in your same field. I find this an encouraging thought when we are in the writing process: your application will be met by people that, more often than not, are rooting for your success. However, this is a competitive field, so that same panelist will be reading many many many applications for the same pool of money.

For me, it’s really important to pay attention to each and every element of the application, and make sure that each part of the application is painting a different stroke of the same coherent painting. Is the budget supportive of my intentions described in the narrative? Are my work samples giving an approximate idea of my style, or of what the project might look like? Is it clear how this project is advancing the mission of my organization? 

Going through the different parts composing an application, the panelists absorb as much info as they can: after, when they put down the application, they try to gather a few notes that project an image of what they just read. I always think about that moment: the more that picture is defined, with clear bright colors, the more the project will stand out. 

Something to bear in mind is that panelists have limited time and attention in the context of adjudicating a grant: it’s important that the picture you compose serves their memory. Not that what you propose has to be memorable in absolute terms, but that you insert somewhere in the application one little hook that you’d like to be remembered by: sometimes that hook is a testimonial, or a striking image, or a particular aspect of your project. 

It’s also important to remind yourself that your project might have all the best elements – and yet, not be in the right place at the right time. These are aspects outside of your control, and the only thing you can do is persevere: keep showing up, show up in different places.

piece of paper ripped to reveal the words "our mission"

Advice & Experience from Amrit 

It’s really important to research the organization/funder who is judging your grant application. Sometimes, you may not even think about how the funding organization’s mission statement and values align with your mission, or if they don’t at all because of the grant details (grant amount, ease of access, simple process, etc.). When you find a grant that is totally for the impact and driven change your organization is for, that’s when you may feel the most confident in applying!

As a young BIPOC storyteller myself, I don’t often have many personal connections with the grants and funding opportunities I apply to. But I always try to see if I can find an “in” or connection within the organization. This is typically a person who is listed on their website or grant page, and reach out to them to not only give more information about my project/venture/organization, but to also create a familiarity and give a good impression. All the while examining if they are truly aligned with their mission.

If you’re a BIPOC from an underserved community(ies), don’t be shy about asking questions regarding how their funding and other opportunities truly uplift YOU and YOUR mission. This outreach will also circle back to the funders getting to hear you speak more on your purpose and they may see you as more prepared with the research and outreach you did during the judging phase!

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