Thinking points for grant applications

I have been very fortunate to have been honored with a number of grants and fellowships over the years. I will be the first to admit that they have been real milestones in my career. A peer recently wrote me with a question about my experience applying for such grants. In the process of thinking out and then writing down my response, I realized a couple things. The last thing I realized was that her question (and my response) were a blog entry in the making. The other insights that I had are part of the piece below.

Looking back on my career in order to answer her question, I noted that as a photographer, I have often been lucky. They say luck favors the prepared so maybe I get a little credit. What I also noticed is that when I look back at things in hindsight, I understand them better. No surprise there. The surprise is the realization that one thing that helps me be a better teacher is that, besides being able to look back at my steps and missteps, I can also articulate and then share the lessons I learned at each point.

All that came to mind after I read what my friend wrote:

Can I pick your brain for an application that I made? It’s an application for…. The deadline was yesterday and I’ve already done my submission. I think the application that I wrote seemed too personal and not objective enough.

I looked at the link on your website on Grant Proposal Writing by Corporation for Public Broadcasting and I tried to follow the guidelines in writing my narrative. They suggested that I consider thinking from the point of view of the funder and asking:

• What do we want?

• What concern will be addressed and why it is important?

• Who will benefit and how?

• What specific objectives can be accomplished and how?

• How will results be measured?

• How does this funding request relate to the funder’s purpose, objectives, and priorities?

• Who are we (organization, independent producer) and how do we qualify to meet this need?

I think I did quite badly. Nevertheless, can I get you to take a quick look through my application so that I know what mistakes I made and what I need to do better the next time round? I’ve attached the application in this email. The first paragraph is the write up from the Foundation to give you an idea of their mission.

(For many reasons, I see no need to share her name, her project or her target funding source. I want this advice to be as broad as possible, so I will keep her question and my answers as broad as possible.)

I thought about her question and then wrote back:

You are right it is too personal. Also, what you propose to do is too big. You should make the scale of the project more realistic and propose to “explore” the lives of ….., which seems smaller and more likely to be accomplished. Your original goal was too big. A good project officer at a foundation, who reviews grant applications fir a living, will immediately see that.

Also, you need to convince them that you and your project are so important to them that they simply must support you. You need to explicitly say out loud, to them, why is it in their best interest to support you! With their funds and the kinds of other support they offer, what will you make? What is the outcome about which they can say “we funded this important thing, aren’t we great?” That is one thing foundations do, sometimes explicitly, sometimes quietly, but most of them do that. They also promote specific goals/projects/ideas. How does your proposed project do that??

Remember that grants are in essence little more than a “job.” The funder has a mission they want to promote and thus a job they need done. You need to align your expertise and their interests as closely as possible. You do this so you can get “the job,” to spend their money doing whatever it is that you want (and they have endorsed by selecting you.)

The funder you approached also had an artist’s residency component with very specific resources in the location of the residency. So, you needed to tell them how you would use those resources to either do your project better or to actually make their resources be part of the proposed project.

Also, you need to put your project in the context of what others have done on the same topic. You do not want to spend too much time talking about the work of others, but you need to put your work in the larger context of how your chosen topic has been explored in other media, through traditional research projects, etc. You also need too briefly touch on what you will be doing that is different from the work of others who have preceded you. All of this information briefly tells the funder that you are aware of what else has been done and helps them know what you will do with their money, in particular how your effort will in fact be different.

The list of questions you used as thinking points is good, but that is more organization focussed, rather than fir evaluating individual applicants. Organizational grants are usually pretty different, so use any resources for evaluating such grants with care. On the other hand, the idea of asking how your project serves the funder’s interests is an important one for all kinds of grant funded projects.

A few other thoughts to keep in mind next time. As photographers we are at an advantage in that our output is more universally accessible (as compared to conventional written research.). On the other hand, since “everyone” is now a photographer, the most successful applicant for any grant brings more to their application than photography skills. My Fulbright fellowships were awarded to me because of my expertise and experience in South Asia, not because of my photography skills. You bring a couple talents that I lack to your proposed project (gender being one of them,) so it would not hurt to highlight the skills you have that will make it more likely you can “pull this off.”

A last thought or two. A great exercise to get better at this is to look at the work of other people who have won grants or fellowships in order to see how they aligned their expertise with the funder’s mission. Previous winners who are listed on the funder’s site are the obvious sources, but I also look at the resumes of accomplished photographers to see what grants/fellowships they have won. Sometimes it can be hard to connect the dots, but if you do, you may see a really imaginative way of connecting the two. Since grants are so competitive, understanding how to think creatively in linking your expertise and the funder’s mission/interests can be the difference between success and failure.

Finally, you need to start working on next year’s application right now. I know it seems far away, but the sooner you start, the better. First, if you revisit your proposal every month, you will continually polish it till it really shines. Also, over the coming year you can share proposal with other people to get their feedback. Thirdly, if you continue to be interested in and researching the project/topic over the coming year, your perspective on that is simply bound to change with time. Lastly, if you do any field work/photography for the project, you are also bound to learn things in the field that have to change your project and by extension your project proposal.

As I wrote her, (and I say to you) “I hope this gives you something to think about the next time you are preparing a grant application!”

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