Some Practical Suggestions Learned from Personal Experiences, Both Good and Bad
Written by Prof. Jeffrey Hass, Jacobs School of Music, 2011
The main thing is apply, apply, apply! View submitting applications as an essential part of your career activity. There are only a handful of artistic grants and fellowships in the world that are awarded to those who don’t apply and chances are, you are not going to be the recipient of one of those. And success breeds success. A history of receiving grants makes your future applications look even better to a panel, so start building your success list now.
At the appropriate time in your career, get on as many grant review panels as you can so you learn the group dynamics of how decisions are made firsthand. You’ll quickly learn which applications rise to the top and why. When you see how arbitrary some committee decisions are, you won’t feel so bad about your rejections either. If you can’t get on a committee, speak to someone you know who participates in grant decision-making processes to find out what sorts of proposals get awarded and which do not.
Expect to be rejected the vast majority of the time. That’s par for the course. Send them and forget about them. Train yourself not to take it personally (“they” don’t hate you or your art–usually). It only takes a few acceptances to keep you pretty busy. If rejected however, call up the grant administrator to find out what you can do to improve your proposal next time around and request any recorded comments of the committee, which are often written down just for this purpose…if you present a genuine desire to learn rather than berate them for rejecting you, most administrators are very willing to help out.
If it is a prestigious award, expect that it may take 5, 10 or a lifetime of applications before you are successful, if ever. I’ve received several grants after promising myself I’d never apply again, except for just this last time.
Get on every ‘professional opportunities’ mailing list you can (find out from others in your field what those are). There is a lot of money out there to be had for just a little bit of effort.
Don’t shy away from opportunities with “reasonable” application fees if you can afford them. Consider these one of the many costs associated with investing in your career. They help limit the number of other applicants bettering your chances, and winning one $5,000 award will pay for a lifetime of future application fees. Fees are also tax-deductible, along with all the other costs of applying (postage, copying, etc.) if you have taxable income.
Keep a calendar of application deadlines and realize you will need to write your proposal far enough in advance to give your reference writers plenty of time to respond to your ideas in their letters (a month in advance is appropriate, the night before is not).
Pick your references very carefully and find out as diplomatically as you can if they will give your application and their letter the time of day. Often, many applicants use the same famous person whose brief two-sentence recommendation is identical for each one which makes it meaningless to a committee. Maybe better to get someone who is invested in your success and will take the time to personalize her or his support.
Tell a story, excite the imagination of your readers. Proposals that are as dry as beef jerky may be useful for government or corporate funding (NEA, private foundations), but rarely work for artistic projects reviewed by other artists. If you are giving a recital, maybe find an extra-musical theme that draws all the works together if you don’t already have one, if you are proposing an abstract piece of music, find some interesting topic you can talk about that may be related to the title, even if it has nothing to do with your piece. A perfect example was two composers applying for the same commission I adjudicated on a non-musically trained committee (except for me). One’s proposal said “I propose to write a 15-minute orchestral piece in 3 movements.” Period–that was the whole proposal. The other composer had already decided to title his piece after a constellation and proceeded to educate the readers about the history and meaning of the constellation throughout various civilizations and how he would draw that into the music…it may have had very little to do with his original musical intent. Guess who got the grant?
Most applications require submission of a resume and/or bio, so chose the most important highlights that are relevant to what you are applying for to feature in your prose and refer the readers to your other accomplishments in your CV. In general, with a little verbal guidance, it’s best to let your accomplishments do most of the talking for you–it’s really hard to talk up a non-existent career and it is usually very transparent when people try. Avoid excessive hyperbole too.
Most importantly, let them know why your project is unique and will significantly add to the body of work that is out there, will advance the field, will explore new modes of expression, will break new ground. Even better, let them know why you, and you alone are uniquely qualified to accomplish it. What’s unique in your background ‘mix of educational or personal experiences, what cultures, languages other art forms are you familiar with that can play into the project, etc.?
Telegraph your own excitement about the project–if you don’t seem excited about it, why should your readers be? Like watching sports, committee members often feel that they are vicariously joining in the adventure of a project by funding it, thereby bringing it to life. Set up that adventure in their imaginations.
AVOID JARGON! Know your reviewers’ backgrounds and gear your terminology to their level of understanding. In order to communicate your competence in your field, rather than using jargon, share some of the previously-juried awards, scholarships, etc. you have received, granted by other experts in your field–that is a much better communicator of competence than throwing out esoteric terms even you barely understand. Trying to use jargon to impress a non-expert panel is the quickest way to have your proposal rejected–it’s a far more transparent strategy than you think. If you must use terms specific to your field, then briefly educate your readers on what they mean–everybody likes to learn something new, even while reading dozens of proposals.
BE HONEST! Committees know a lot more than you may think. If you sat in the audience of a Master Class, don’t claim to have ‘studied with the master,’ listing him/her equally along with teachers your have studied privately with for years. I’ve been on several committees where this happened–unfortunately for the applicant, so was the master, who had no recollection of ever meeting the applicant. And so were the regular teachers, who were mad that 100 lessons with them was being equated to shaking hands in the receiving line of the master. So drop names carefully and only when justified. If you claim you’ve had 100’s of national and international performances and your record shows you had one international performance, that’s not good either.
Learn to walk a fine line between overstating and understating your accomplishments. Avoid both false modesty and arrogant boastfulness. Err on the modest side if you have to, such as “I was very fortunate to be chosen for the honor of blah, blah” as opposed to “I smoked those 900 other pianists SO bad, it wasn’t even close.”
Let your readers know your capacity for completing the task you set out for yourself in the proposal. The best way to do this is to discuss the results of similar grant projects you have completed on time in the past. A common concern of a reviewer is that the applicant does not have the capacity to complete the very ambitious project they are proposing, so your track record is crucial here. They don’t want to see their limited money go to waste, so you really need to inspire confidence in them that you will finish on time and on budget.
Pay close attention to the page or word limit given (a bad start is demonstrating you can’t follow directions). Figure your reader has hundreds of applications to read in one to two days and you have about two paragraphs to concisely say what it is that you are going to do, how you are going to do it, why the thing you are going to do is important, and why they should trust you to do it–the rest is all filling in the details. If they don’t ask for an abstract at the beginning of the proposal, just make your own. If you haven’t grabbed them quickly, you’re likely on your way to the reject pile.
Trying to demonstrate how much you want a grant by writing a small book doesn’t work well. Neither do brief statements that look like you gave it about five minutes of thought before stuffing it into the mail. Almost all proposals can be tightened up before sending. Best to spend some time trying to edit down your proposal to as concise a statement as possible while still getting all your ideas across.
Always keeping an up-to-date, nicely formatted CV. makes applying to anything and everything much easier.
Double-check on your references to make certain they have submitted their letters on time–many grant and fellowship organizations do not inform you when you are short a letter–they just silently eliminate your proposal from consideration. If you are using the same referees over and over again, consider buying them a dinner or small gift as a thank you for your successful applications and they may be more willing to continue writing for you.
Present your supplemental materials (scores, recordings, press kits, etc.) in as neat and professional a way as possible. Simple, but elegant is usually the best way to go. Printed CD labels, fresh attractive binders or folders do make a difference when decisions are very close. Don’t send things they specifically ask you not to send (for example, many composition grants have a first round where they say specially they DO NOT want scores, but you’d be amazed at the number of applicants that send them anyway). Don’t email mp3 recordings to the personal mailboxes of a panel…again you’d be amazed at how many people do and how mad that makes the panelists whose email goes over quota.
Budgets need to be thoroughly researched and priced out, with accommodation for rise in prices (for example, airfare, hotels, etc. which change rapidly). Demonstrate that you have done your homework on this in your proposal. If you are asking for equipment, don’t quote the cheapest vendor unless you have to stay below a certain budget amount. Also, be sure to factor in all the little items (equipment accessories, local travel fare, meals, etc.) that can add up. DON’T TRANSPARENTLY PAD YOUR BUDGET-it shows! Much better to use middle-of-the-road pricing quotes to give you some financial leeway for your project should you need it. Some grants will hold you specifically to what you listed in your budget, others will give you a blanket amount to spend as you see fit, so adjust accordingly.
Provide an annotated budget if you are asking for esoteric items your readers may not be familiar with. If you are asking for a Widget X, provide a brief explanation of what Widget X does and why it is essential to your project’s needs