How do you increase your odds at receiving a grant?
For me, the most important thing has been attitude – not just a ‘grant-writing’ attitude, but an entrepreneurial, competitive and professional attitude.
With that in mind, here are seven strategies that I think are important to artists preparing applications.
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1. Be the best musician.
The talent pool is always huge and there’s tons of competition. Keep your skills in check and strive to be the best. How do your musical skills measure up to past recipients?
When it comes to applying for grants, I believe that your most valuable asset is your music. If you sound good, the panel will consider your proposal. If you sound bad, your writing skills won’t help you, and you’ll never get the grant.
That’s how you solve this Catch-22.
2. Be independent.
I always have a few projects on the go. I also always have a list of projects I’d like to undertake. When I take on these projects, it’s imperative that I complete them; they’re part of a very important and personal mission.
I never create a project for the sake of receiving a grant; my projects are my primary concern. Sometimes they’re eligible for funding, and I’ll take steps to submit a request. But they’re never dependant on funding. I’m going to finish them with or without the grant.
When I requested a grant to compose music in 2008, I had already been working with a concept for many months. I had worked out most of the major themes and wrote a few of the tunes. More importantly, I was able to describe and present a solid, unifying concept by the time the application was due. That’s how I solved the Catch-22 First Variation.
When I booked my latest tour, I told club owners and artistic directors that I was touring with or without funding. I was able to book more gigs and propose a more solid tour to the Canada Council. That’s how I solved the Catch-22 Second Variation.
If I get rejected, I never have to worry about a stagnant career. I’m always growing and making progress. That kind of independence will translate into higher success rates.
3. Understand the Big Picture.
Different organizations have different agendas, but generally speaking, they all prefer to invest in projects promising larger culture bubbles. You may have a fantastic project proposal, but if its scope is narrow, you may lose to someone who has more bubble potential.
It’s very important to understand the Canada Council’s (or any organization’s) broad and domestic cultural agenda. If you have an eligible project that can unite the entire country in one culture bubble, you’ll have a significant advantage over artists who only want to practice in their studio.
For example, it’s obvious that promoting and performing Canadian music is a plus. Promoting and performing Canadian music for high school kids is an improvement. Promoting Canadian music to high school kids and getting them to perform it is even better. What’s the next step? Be creative!
The challenge then is optimizing your project’s cultural impact without numbing it down or losing focus.
4. Be ambitious, but focused.
If you can’t summarize your project in fifteen words or less, you’re doing too much. Or at least, you’re not unifying all the braches of your project under one solid idea.
For example, artists are always getting grants to travel and live in New York. There are a number of things they would want to achieve there from studying with a private teacher, attending clubs frequently, participating in jam sessions, cultivating relationships and other activities to optimize their time there. These can easily be unified with “artistic growth.” That’s what you should emphasize.
That being said, it’s important to make sure your project has focus. If you can only summarize your project in five words, you’re probably not doing enough.
For example: “To compose music” is way too simple and boring. “To compose music based on an interesting concept” is an improvement. “To compose music based on an interesting concept for your next album” is even better.
5. Be professional.
If your application is half-assed, is missing documents, has spelling mistakes or is in any way amateurish, kiss that application goodbye. You don’t stand a chance. Get your shit together!
6. Be clear and concise.
Get to the point; fancy language is ineffective.
Project descriptions for the Canada Council must be less than 750 words. My successful applications average 400 words. That doesn’t mean they lack content, I means it’s important that they’re clear and concise.
Being clear also means using vocabulary that’s easy for everyone to understand. For example, talking about “jazz combos” may confuse some. Talking about “jazz ensembles” is better.
Another example: Talking about “Palestrina counterpoint” may confuse readers. “Renaissance counterpoint” is better. “Traditional counterpoint” is best.
7. Learn from your previous applications.
“I’m getting better and better at shaping these applications to increase success rates; each successive one improves on the previous and takes me less time to complete.
I partially credit this to my habit of cataloguing every application I submit. Cataloguing makes it easy to recycle ideas and language from good/successful applications to enhance bad/unsuccessful ones. I often use the copy/paste feature to make minor adjustments to the language, tweak the structure and create more efficient, precise sentences. Even if the applications are for different things, there always seems to be something recyclable.”
After an unsuccessful application you should contact the organization and ask for feedback. The Canada Council is great at providing applicants with the panel’s notes, and suggestions for how you can do better next time. Not all organizations do this, but it’s worth asking.
Your peers, (particularly experienced grant writers), are also valuable sources of feedback. Ask them for suggestions too!
Which strategy do you think is most valuable? Do you have any to add?