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Nina Berman Post by Nina Berman

By Nina Berman on August 24th, 2020

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6 Tips to Improve Your Art Grant Applications

Fiscal Sponsorship | Grants | Tips and Tools | Fundraising

Applying for grants as an artist can be challenging. It can be time consuming and hard. It can sometimes feel like you’re sending out applications into a void never to hear back from funders. If you are consistently not receiving funding that you’re applying for, you might not even know why.

Fractured Atlas is here to help. As an arts service organization and fiscal sponsor to over 4,000 artists and arts organizations, we work closely with artists at all levels of their career and across all media. As part of our support for our community of fiscally sponsored projects, our Programs team looks at every single grant application that uses Fractured Atlas as a fiscal sponsor.

That means we’ve seen quite a bit. We’ve seen what works and what doesn’t. We share the knowledge we’ve accrued across our teams over time because we deeply believe that all artists should have the support you need to bring your work to life and take it to the next level. 

Here are six suggestions from the Programs team to help you improve your grant applications.


1. Pay Attention to the Idiosyncrasies

Each different funder will be unique. They might have specific formatting requirements or ways that they describe the work that they want to support. Even though multiple funders might theoretically want to fund your project, they might want to do so for different reasons or as part of different overall missions. They might care about different aspects of your work or require different phrasing when you write about how you’ll measure the effectiveness of your work. 

Even though you might be applying to a number of grants, you’ll need to really customize your applications for each individual funder. By paying attention to what makes individual grants unique, you will demonstrate that you’re truly keyed in to what the funder is looking for, which will make for a stronger overall application. 


2. Research Funders

A common issue that the Fractured Atlas team sees is that individual artists or arts organizations are applying for grants without doing their due diligence to research the institution supporting that grant. 

Artists sometimes do a search on a grant aggregator like Candid and start working on applications for every grant that funds art or artists. 

While you definitely want to search far and wide for all of the grants that might be good fits for your work, you want to make sure that you’re digging into the details about the funders before you devote time to applying for funding from them. 

Look at their websites, their mission statement, and their past 990s. See who they’ve funded in the past. By researching funders, you’ll be able to get a real sense of whether your project is actually the kind of thing that they are likely to support. 

This way, you can spend your time focusing on grants that are a better fit for your work rather than spreading yourself too thin applying to grants that aren’t as strong a fit for you. 


3. Don’t Change Your Plans to Fit a Grant

After you’ve taken a look at what individual funders are specifically looking for, you might be tempted to shift your project in order to fit a specific grant. While it’s fine to highlight different aspects of your work for different funders, we don’t recommend radically shifting your focus in order to get funding. By changing your project to fit a grant, you’ll end up spending more energy trying to fit into what a given grant wants than you should. Shifting your plans to match a grant will pull you further away from your vision and suck up time that you could use to find a better partnership.

If you are in the midst of answering questions for a grant and you find that you don’t have a good answer to a question that the grant is asking, it might mean that you aren’t a good fit for the grant or that it isn't a good fit for you. It’s not a failure of your project, it’s just a mismatched partnership. 

For example, a grant application might ask you what percentage of your audience is younger than 18. If your work isn’t specifically designed to be accessible to youth audiences, you should perhaps use that question as an indicator that this grant isn’t the right fit for you, rather than trying to rig some way to present your work to teenagers and kids. If a corporate sponsor is asking if there are volunteer opportunities for their employees as a part of your project, it might be more trouble than it’s worth to restructure your project to accommodate a large group of coworkers on a volunteer day. 

Ultimately, you’ll be better off looking for funding opportunities that are attuned to the work you’re already planning on doing (or are already doing!). 


4. Think of Grants Like Partnerships

You might think of a grant like a one-way street where you are benefiting from the largesse of a foundation or a corporation. But a better way to think about grants is to consider them as a partnership. You are looking for partners, not for benefactors.

Grantees receive financial support and a funder is better able to execute their mission or directive. When you are applying for grants, you’re not asking for a handout, you’re giving an institution the opportunity to partner with you and to be a part of your vision. When you are applying to grants, you’re potentially beginning a years-long relationship.

If you come to your grant applications from the perspective of partnership-building, you’ll come across as more confident to funders and stand a better chance of showing them that you’re working on exciting and necessary work that they want to be a part of.


5. Ask Questions of Funders

If you’re considering a grant like the beginning of a partnership with a funder, you’ll need to ask questions. And you’ll want to!

Unless a funder explicitly says that they don’t want phone calls or emails, consider reaching out before you apply to learn more about the funder. 

Set up informational interviews with funders to learn more and begin to cultivate those relationships. How do they operate? What are they really interested in funding? How much funding do projects usually receive? What does it feel like to talk with people who work for that funder? What tools or support do they offer to grantees in addition to money? 

Asking questions will set you up to be in a stronger position if you apply for a grant from that institution. It can also help you network more broadly. People who work for funders often know other people who work for different funders. If through conversation with a funder you determine that you aren’t a good fit for one another, they might be able to point you in a different direction. 


6. Match the Funder’s Language in a Grant Application

Once you are in the process of applying for a specific grant, take a close look at how the funder uses language. You’ve hopefully already researched an institution before applying for a grant from them. Through that research, you’ll have seen how they write and how they talk about themselves. You can use that to inform how you talk about your art in a grant application.

Are they very formal and professional? Are they more casual and conversational? Are they steeped in radical theory, do they sound like a startup, or like old-school philanthropy? What are some of the keywords that keep cropping up on their website? 

You can improve your grant applications by noting how a funder writes and then using that to inform how you write your application. You don’t need to completely change your tone to match theirs (and in fact, if there’s a big tonal mismatch, it might not be a great partnership to pursue!). But if you can demonstrate through your language that your work intersects with theirs in a meaningful way, your application will be stronger as a result. 


Fiscal Sponsorship Can Help You Receive More Art Grants

There are a lot of ways to improve your capacity to find grants and to craft more compelling applications for those grants. But one major way that artists can improve their grant applications is by expanding the pool of grants that you are eligible for. 

Many grants are only available to artists or arts organizations that have either 501(c)(3) status or a fiscal sponsor. Getting 501(c)(3) status can be difficult and expensive, but fiscal sponsorship gives you many of the same benefits without having to go through the process of incorporating as a nonprofit.

If you want a bigger pool of grants to apply to, fiscal sponsorship can open doors. Through Fractured Atlas’s fiscal sponsorship program, we help thousands of artists access a wider range of funding opportunities than they could before. If you’re looking for more grants, and for access to our Programs team’s experience and advice, we’d love to talk

And if you'd like to learn more about how artists get funding for your work, check out Fundraising for Artists: The Ultimate Guide!

More posts by Nina Berman

About Nina Berman

Nina Berman is an arts industry worker and ceramicist based in New York City, currently working as Associate Director, Communications and Content at Fractured Atlas. She holds an MA in English from Loyola University Chicago. At Fractured Atlas, she shares tips and strategies for navigating the art world, interviews artists, and writes about creating a more equitable arts ecosystem. Before joining Fractured Atlas, she covered the book publishing industry for an audience of publishers at NetGalley. When she's not writing, she's making ceramics at Centerpoint Ceramics in Brooklyn.