How to Raise Funds for Your Socially Engaged Project, Part 2: Writing the Proposal

Still from the film American Promise, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, 2013. The author, Stephanie Bleyer, produced a transmedia engagement campaign for the film.
In my last post, I shared my tips for finding foundations and philanthropists to support your socially engaged art projects. This post will cover writing and submitting the proposal, and what to do after you get the grant (we know you will).
Writing The Proposal
Here are just a few generalities to keep in mind when you start writing:

  1. Don’t say it’s urgent. It’s probably not. Unless you’re a few dollars away from curing cancer, no need to use the “now or never” card.
  2. For the most part, don’t write in first-person singular. Exceptions include individual fellowship applications.
  3. Don’t say that all you want to do is raise awareness. If that’s your goal, don’t ask for engagement funding.
  4. Save the art-speak for your next book. If your proposal is so muddled with art-speak that the funder can’t understand what you actually propose to do, you’re not going to get funded.
  5. Personalize the proposal. Don’t submit a template. Show them you’ve done your homework and that you know exactly what they fund and why you are a perfect fit for them.
  6. If you have to fill out an online form, copy and paste all of the questions from the form into a Word document so you can work off-line and not risk losing your master draft.
  7. Most funders will want to know about other funders you are approaching and who has already committed funding.  Few funders like to be the first to show up at the party and they definitely don’t like to be the only ones at the party. Be transparent about who you’re pursuing, and be honest if you are still looking for that first brave funder. Most importantly, every time you receive new funding, let all of your existing and prospective funders know.
  8. Many funders will ask you what other kind of support services you will need. I love this question, and I take full advantage of it. One time I had a funder subsidize the cost of hiring a branding/messaging firm, a technical advisor, and a campaign strategist. This was in addition to their financial support of the project and it was invaluable. Give this question some serious thought and show how beneficial these ancillary services will be to your project.

Bring on the Pros
Hire a professional writer. Hiring someone who speaks fundraising language and/or is a dynamite writer will pay off. I’ve hired a $100/hr New York Times journalist and a $35/hr grantwriter in Seattle. Don’t ask them if they can just get paid a percentage of what they bring in. Funders don’t like that and grantwriters don’t like that (and unless you’re hiring your mom, why would a grantwriter assume the risk of fundraising for your project?)
I make three notes in my calendar for when I’m one month, two weeks and one day away from the application deadline. I generally wait to submit until the due date so the application is as up-to-date as possible. Just don’t wait until the very last hour; you’ll often have to plug your answers into an online form with character limits, and editing your answers down to these limits without compromising content can be excruciatingly time consuming.
Foundations are glacially slow. And the bigger the foundation, the slower they move.  Don’t be surprised if it takes a year from the time you submit the LOI to the time you receive the funds. The fastest turnaround I’ve experienced was a $50k donation from a philanthropist, requested on a Friday and received on a Monday. This is unusual, even for an individual philanthropist unencumbered by institutional lethargy. Bottom line––if you are looking for quick, short-term funding, steer clear of foundations. Focus instead on philanthropists, and start your institutional fundraising for projects at least six to twelve months from when you’ll need the funding.
Before You Hit Submit

  1. Double-check the application guidelines to make sure you’ve responded to all of the questions. This is obvious, but it’s worth a mention.
  2. Have everyone––interns, assistants, advisors, family members––copy-edit the proposal.
  3. If you’re not filling in an online form, layout the copy of your proposal using a home-publishing program. It’s not high-design but it’s nicer looking than a Microsoft Word doc.
  4. Turn your draft into a PDF (never ever submit a Word document).

Congrats, You Got the Grant! Now What?
You’ll still have lots of work ahead of you. I like to keep my funders constantly engaged with the project, not just because it will increase the likelihood that I will get a second grant, but also because they are often a great resource. Program Officers can help you in so many ways beyond writing checks. When I’m on my game, I’ll send a monthly update to my funders. When we get a big press hit, I’ll send it to them. I’ll send them previews, rough cuts and work samples so they can see and weigh in on our progress. With bigger projects, I’ll organize a quarterly funders-only meeting to present progress.
You’ll find that some funders don’t want to be involved at all. A word of warning: Dealing with Program Officers at some foundations can feel like dealing with an A-list celebrity. They don’t pick up the phone. They ask you for something on a Friday afternoon with a Monday morning deadline. They request reams of paperwork, which they’ll never read. They have the power, you don’t, and there’s no way around it. Just don’t take it personally.
Even if the Program Officer is not engaged, still send them press hits and updates. At a minimum, you’re maintaining their confidence in your project.
You will certainly have to submit an annual report, if not quarterly reports to your funders. These due dates will be noted in your acceptance letter and they should be immediately plugged into your calendar.
Do you have any grantwriting tips or hints? What about questions? Share them in our comments section or on Creative Capital’s Facebook page.
Want to learn more about fundraising? Check out Part 3 of this series, where I discuss other funding sources and fundraising techniques. Also, don’t miss my June 9th webinar, “Producing & Funding Your Community Engagement Campaign“, in which you’ll learn how to produce effective engagement campaigns for artwork that contains social justice content. Click here to register.

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