Applying for Grants: Choosing Work Samples

Throughout Creative Capital’s award application process, we see a lot of work samples. While not every grant application is the same, there are some basic rules to think about when submitting work samples to make your application as strong as possible.

Acknowledging What Work Samples Do
The first thing to keep in mind is that during a review process, evaluators aren’t just looking at your work alone. In a single day, an evaluator may be looking at upwards of 100 different projects, many of which may be addressing similar issues or share aesthetic similarities. The evaluators want to give their full attention to your project, so choosing great work samples can help them do that.

Your entire application—including words, images, audio, and video—is an exercise in persuasion. As an applicant, your job is to show the evaluators that you have a terrific and innovative idea, and you have the capacity and experience to pull off that idea. Essentially, you want to prove to the granting organization that they would be missing out by not joining you on your extraordinary creative journey. Great work samples will help make this happen.

Documentation is Key
Going the extra mile to obtain great documentation of your work could be a defining factor in securing funding for your project. When collecting work sample documentation, hold yourself to the same high standards that you hold in your art practice. You wouldn’t produce a play in a setting where the audience can’t hear what the actors are saying, so don’t submit video of a performance that makes it hard for the evaluators to hear the dialogue. For performing arts especially, collecting great documentation may require working videographers, editors, and boom mics—which can get expensive—but if it means getting that next big grant, it can pay off. Or, consider working with a colleague who can help with these needs by trading skills or other in-kind services.

For evaluators who don’t know you, your work sample IS your work—it’s the single way they will experience it. So, make sure it’s the best representation of it. And remember, the strongest work samples will capture your singular sensibility and areas of exploration.

What If No Work Samples Exist for the Project You Are Proposing?
It’s possible that some of the work you are pitching in an application won’t be far enough in development for you to provide documentation. Don’t worry—you can use previous work samples to help the evaluators imagine what your future work will look like. The work samples should build a bridge between what you’ve done before and what you propose to do in the future. Even if you are proposing to make your first feature length film, your work in shorts will paint a picture of your capabilities.

Do not assume that the evaluators will make the connection between your past and future work, however. Instead, help them connect the dots where you can by filling out descriptions of the work. Describe your work sample to give them a sense of what they’re looking at and how it connects with your future projects.

Get Feedback From People You Trust Before You Submit
It may be helpful to show your work samples to a couple of friends or colleagues before you submit. Consider choosing someone who knows your work intimately, as well as someone who has never seen it before. Discuss their perceptions of the project. Your informed viewpoint of your work may not be shared by someone who has never seen it before. You may be surprised to learn that others see something completely different.

Do Work Samples Have an Expiration Date?
Try to submit completed work from the last five years to give the evaluators a sense of what your most recent work looks like. It may appear suspicious if your work samples are too old—it looks like a gap in your work resume.

While completed work is best, work-in-progress supplements are acceptable if you feel they will make the best case. No matter what, organizations want to see at least some fully produced work.

Drop Evaluators into the Action
For time-based works, the first few seconds or sentences are crucial. First impressions count! Don’t do a slow buildup with lengthy intertitles. Instead, drop us into the action and make us feel like we are right there with you. Remember, in any grant application process, your project is not the only sample that an evaluator is reviewing. You want to capture their attention quickly and then hold it for the duration of your sample.

Do not submit trailers, a reel of greatest hits, or a series of quick edits of your work. Submissions should be a continuous excerpt so we can see how it unfolds. If you’d like evaluators to see more than one section of work, divide it across multiple samples.

No Guarantees
Granting foundations often want to give out more grants than they can, so even if you follow all of these rules to a T, it won’t guarantee that you get the grant. However, even if you don’t get it, great work samples could stick with evaluators after the application process—we have seen work that did not receive an award go on to be curated, programmed, and funded. So remember, great work samples can do so much more than just make great applications.

Image above: Cave Exits by Creative Capital Awardee Peter Burr.

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