Many dance company directors panic when considering grant applications, certain that there’s some secret everyone else knows about the best way to get funds. The truth is, there is no great secret. The most successful grantseekers win grants because they incorporate grant applications into their annual strategic funding plan, and they realize that a methodical approach to grantsmanship actually helps them build a stronger, more stable dance company. Not only is that an exciting prospect, it’s a fairly easy one to achieve. With a little patience and elbow grease, you’ll find grantmakers who will fund new choreographic projects, community outreach programs, collaborations with musicians and visual artists, and sometimes even facility expansions—it just depends on their mission.
Too frequently, company administrators think about grants at the last minute—just before the deadline—and then go into a frenzy trying to complete and submit a proposal in time. Before you start looking for your first grant, make sure you do the following: First, find a fiscal sponsor. If your company does not have IRS 501(c)(3) status, most foundations require that you form an affiliation with an organization that does. There are numerous arts organizations nationwide that will act as fiscal sponsors for both companies and individuals; these organizations generally require a written agreement and charge a small fee (usually no more than five percent of any funds they accept on your behalf).
To find a fiscal sponsor, start by contacting larger regional grantmakers or arts organizations. Chances are good that if they don’t regularly act as fiscal sponsors, they know of an organization that might be interested in working with you in your area. When you find potential sponsors, interview them and see what kinds of mentoring or assisting they can offer you. Don’t be afraid to shop around for an organization that is interested in your success. Some organizations see this relationship as an opportunity to help strengthen your dance company (or individual career) as well as the arts in general by helping you make smarter business decisions. Once you have secured a sponsor, keep copies of your affiliation agreements or 501(c)(3) letters handy, as grantmakers will want to see these.
You will also need to keep detailed files and records with all of your financial and administrative information. For example, maintain up-to-date records of expenditures and adjust your budget as you bring in new funds or encounter unexpected shortfalls. Be sure to have copies of your IRS 990 forms handy in case grantmakers want to see them, too. In terms of administrative paperwork, there are several areas that you need to have covered:
-Keep updated bios of anyone associated with your dance company, from board members to office staff and dancers. As you experience resignations or hire new employees and board members, update the bio files immediately. Also, it’s important to keep track of the ethnic and gender diversity among your board members, office staff and dancers, so that you have that information available if a grantmaking foundation inquires.
-Build a portfolio and/or an archive by maintaining extra copies of performance programs, photographs, videotapes and press clippings or reviews.
-Start a calendar that includes all of your performance and board meeting dates and any other significant dates for your company. Then, add grant application due dates and site visit dates (if a grantmaker wants to visit you). If you receive a grant, be sure to add due dates for any final reports required by the grantmaker.
-Designate a grants manager and ensure that the individual has regular access to copies of all of the documents listed above. One of the biggest problems grantseekers often encounter is tracking down this basic information at the last minute, which can cause more stress than any other part of the application process (except, of course, for waiting for an answer to your request for funds).
Do Your Homework
Now, the question is: Where can you find grant-giving organizations? There is an incredible array of grant foundations across the U.S., and a wealth of resources available to help you find the right one. Some of those resources are costly, but colleges and larger public libraries often have subscriptions to grantmaker databases, publications and related books. Check these locations before buying or subscribing to anything.
The internet is an invaluable tool for grantseekers, with hundreds of sites offering information on grantsmanship and specific grantmakers. Most major foundations, and many regional or local ones, have their own websites. Visit those sites and see what the organization says about itself. Read the mission statement, funding priorities, annual reports and lists of past grant recipients to see if your program seems compatible with the grantmaker’s interests. Most grantmakers also make grant guidelines and applications available on their websites.
Once you have pinpointed several possibilities, see if any of your colleagues have dealt with those organizations and ask about their experiences. While such foundations are there to help the arts thrive, some are much easier to work with than others. If you’re just getting started in forging relationships with grantmakers, look for ones that are interested in working with new or emerging companies and artists. Chances are they aren’t merely interested in funding art, they are also committed to helping you grow your business experience in the field.
The Application Process
After you’ve decided on a grantmaker, reread what is required of grant applicants. Some grantmakers may require an initial letter of inquiry or a phone inquiry. These serve to introduce you and your work to the organization, after which it will determine whether to request a full proposal. If you are invited to submit a proposal, or if no introduction was required, spend a few days reviewing the application and become familiar with all of its components. If there are elements you don’t understand, make a list and call the appropriate contact person at the foundation. Be direct and ask all of your questions in one phone call. Don’t call multiple times or ask questions that are already answered in the guidelines—annoying the staff will not serve you well.
Next, gather copies of all the background material you’ve been updating (the budgets, bios, videos/DVDs, etc.), and start assembling your application packet. As you write your narrative, address every item or question asked. Jump through every hoop; never assume that something doesn’t apply to you. If there is an application form, use it, no matter how ridiculous it seems. Include every detail and item requested, but not one thing more. The fastest way for grantmakers to identify strong competitors is to see who followed the directions in the application.
There is no great mystery to writing a grant narrative (the part where you describe your company and your work), as you should already have a clear idea of your company’s identity and goals. Remember, you are writing a business proposal here, not the Great American Novel. Most grant applications ask straightforward questions, so you don’t have to ponder what to say. Just answer the questions, honestly and accurately, describing your work and the impact it will have. Use language that is clear, consistent and concise and that is appropriate for business communications, and proofread carefully to avoid embarrassing typos. Grantmakers want to see that you make a worthy contribution to dance, and that you are running a company on sound business practices. That’s it. Those are the merits on which you are ultimately judged.
Finally, send out your application early. Don’t wait until the last possible minute, so that you end up overnighting it to make the deadline. Send the number of copies requested, in the order requested, and bound with the requested staples or binder clips, etc., to show that you respect the grantmaker’s process. Make sure to keep a copy for your records for future reference (and in case your package gets lost in the mail).
The Waiting Game
Don’t panic when the phone doesn’t ring. Be patient. Decisions can take months. You may check in to make certain your application arrived on time, but then you should relax. Don’t call the grantmaker again until at least 10 days after the date specified in the grant application.
If a site visit, such as attendance at a performance or showing, is requested, be accommodating and don’t lose touch with your contact person. If something unexpected happens and your performance is cancelled or relocated, call him or her immediately. Neglecting to inform the representative of a change in plans can reduce your chances of obtaining your grant. Your best bet is to stay organized and update your calendar constantly.
You got the grant. Now that you have all that money, what are you going to do with it? Well, you’d better do exactly what you said you’d do. If something happens and you find you need to alter your project slightly, that’s probably okay. If, however, you need to make major alterations to your initial plan, you should check in with the organization to ensure that your proposed changes are acceptable before you spend the money.
After your performance or project, be certain to follow up with a report to your grantmaker. Just as it had application guidelines, it probably has reporting guidelines as well. Send in the exact information requested, and file the report on time. This will help you maintain a great relationship with the grantmaker and allow that grantmaker to consider you for future funding. Also, remember to report any grant income on your next IRS 990 Form (or 1099 if you are an individual artist).
You’ll probably find that after you have been through the first application cycle—gotten organized, done your research, scheduled events and deadlines, applied for and won a grant—it will be pretty clear how grantsmanship can be a catalyst for your company’s financial well-being. Not only are they a source of income, but when properly managed, grants can encourage fiscal responsibility in the overall management of your dance company by forcing you to budget and stay organized. That increases the viability and sustainability of your company. And, when you make the practice of good grantsmanship (and overall good financial management) a regular priority, you actually have more time and energy to focus on your art form. What could be better than that? DT
Boston-based freelance writer Joshua Legg holds an MFA in dance choreography and performance from Shenandoah University, and has 10 years grantsmanship experience working in dance and social justice organizations.