10 Common Grant Application Mistakes for Artists
The Fractured Atlas team reviews well over 500 grants from fiscally sponsored projects every year. Whenever one of our fiscally sponsored projects uses us as a fiscal sponsor in a grant application, we review that grant application. We have a full grant review request procedure that our team uses to ensure that our fiscally sponsored projects submit strong grant applications when seeking funding.
We are honored to be a part of so many artists’ journeys and to help support you as you seek funding and resources to take your work to the next level. As part of our grant reviews, we see a number of errors that happen repeatedly.
Here are some of the most common mistakes that our programs team sees when reviewing grant applications. We hope that you can use this advice to position your grant applications as strongly as possible. For more grant advice, check out our other articles on the topic!
1. Fancy Formatting in Your Grant Application
You might be tempted to make your grant application look as beautiful or creative as the work you produce, but resist the urge for two reasons. Fancy formatting can be confusing or hard to read for people reviewing your grant application, but it can also add an extra step of work for you. Many grant applications require you to submit materials into an application portal rather than attaching documents. If you have added a lot of bullet points, highlighted text, hyperlinks, or other creative formatting, you might have to undo all of that when you submit it into the portal. Some formatting features might not translate into the document, or might result in an error.
It’s best to err on the side of simplicity. Your work and your writing should speak for themselves.
Note: If you are given a template to fill out (for example, for a budget), use the template provided instead of your own!
2. Excessive Hyperlinking
Related to our advice against fancy formatting, we advise artists to avoid hyperlinking instead of fully answering a question within the body of your application. We understand that you’re probably trying to save yourself time during the application process and that the information you’re being asked to provide might exist in the world already. But, in fact, you might end up making things more difficult for yourself and for the person who will ultimately be reviewing your grant application with hyperlinking. The hyperlink function might not work within the constraints of the application portal. Or, the reviewer might be looking at a printed out version of the application! If you include hyperlinks, you run the risk of the link not working and then the question not being answered at all. Even if it does work, though, asking a reviewer to hunt down additional material outside of the grant application is giving them an extra step of work, which can be disrespectful of their time and give you a less-than-ideal first impression.
3. “See Above” Responses to Questions
Sometimes, grant application questions can feel repetitive to artists seeking funding. We sometimes see grant applicants make notes to “See above” in response to a question or write notes like, “As I said in response to question #3…” The tone of this approach can come across as annoyed or even aggressive. Plus, you don’t know in which order your reviewer is reading your application. Maybe they start with a question in the middle of the application and work backwards or maybe they jump around the application. When you encounter questions that feel repetitive, we encourage you to think about the subtle ways that they might be getting at different issues.
4. Describing Your Work in a Confusing Way
As an artist, you want to demonstrate how unique your work is–especially if you’re trying to stand out amongst a lot of other artists seeking funding. Our programs team has seen a lot of artists and arts organizations come up with creative ways to describe their work. While we recognize that artists do need to find a way for your work to stand out, you still need to make sure that you’re describing your work clearly. The person reviewing your application might not be an artist, and might not work in your field. Is the way you’re describing your work accessible to someone who isn’t an expert in your medium? The person reviewing your application needs to be able to quickly understand what kind of work you make and what you are proposing as a project. It’s hard for artists to talk about your work, especially in the context of a grant application. Here are some more concrete suggestions to help you talk about your work in a clear and compelling way.
5. Recycling the Same Grant Application
If you’re applying for a lot of grants, you’ll end up repeating a lot of information from application to application. But we encourage you to customize your information from grant to grant. Avoid copy and pasting a letter of intent or a mission statement. By crafting a specific application for each grant, you can show funders reading your application that you are serious about their specific opportunity and allows you to truly demonstrate that your work is a good fit for their mission. Plus, if you are only submitting generic information, you might not end up answering the funder’s questions at all.
6. Airing Personal Frustrations
In a grant application, you might be asked about challenges you’ve faced or reasons you’re seeking funding. When answering these questions, it’s easy to slip into a mode of complaining or airing your frustrations. We understand that! Funding art is challenging and frankly, we don’t have a fair or equitable system to support artists right now. It is hard to find funding, many artists are putting their own savings on the line to make the work they believe in, and the future of the arts is distressingly uncertain. But a grant application isn’t the place to air your personal frustrations or grievances. You can certainly acknowledge the struggles you’ve faced, especially as they might relate to systemic lack of access to resources or as they relate to the funder’s mission. But try to steer clear of personal bitterness or even score-settling. It ends up making you less appealing to funders. You want to use your grant applications to show funders that they have an opportunity to help you–the amazing artist that you are–realize your vision. You don’t want to use it to air your grievances, valid as they may be.
7. Asking For Too Much Money
When you apply for a grant, you want to be realistic about how much money you need to complete your project without going over the top. Funders tend to only provide between 25-30% of the proposed budget for a project. Asking for more than you need or asking for a funder to completely fund your project won’t make a good impression on the funder. If you ask for more than you need, or ask for the exact maximum amount that a funder will give to a project, you run the risk of looking like you’re just there to take them for all that they’re worth rather than establishing a mutually beneficial partnership. If you ask for a funder to fund your project in its entirety, you can appear to be without community support (which can serve as an indicator of public interest and eventual audience).
Pro Tip: Don’t leave out your income when constructing your budget. Funders need to know where money is coming in from, not just what you need money for. Plus, indicating that you already have people supporting your work can serve as a way for a funder to vet you.
8. No Backup Plan
Grant applications will often ask applicants what will happen to your project if you don’t receive their funding. It’s understandable that artists might want to say that if you don’t get this specific funding you won’t be able to complete the project. After all, you want to lend a sense of urgency to your application. But you shouldn’t tell a funder that you’ll be defeated if you don’t get money from them or that you’d lay off staff without their money. Funders want to be a partner in your work. Telling them that you need their money specifically otherwise you’ll throw in the towel puts too much responsibility in their hands. Funders want to see that you can restructure your vision to accommodate a smaller budget or that you can find support from other sources. They want to see that you are creative, flexible, and dedicated to your vision.
9. Using Unclear Metrics of Success
It’s hard to gauge the impact of artwork on an individual or on a community, but funders often need to know the effect of your work. That way funders can ensure that your work falls within their mission and can demonstrate their impact to stakeholders like a board or a volunteer corps. As an artist, you might feel like just making your project is a success, or that getting one person to see an issue in a new, more complicated light is a success. But unfortunately, funders need more concrete ways to identify success. Are you sending surveys? Collecting information about tickets sold or the number of people you’ve reached? In order to make your grant applications as compelling as possible, you’ll need to figure out what success looks like for your project and how you can measure it in a meaningful way.
Pro Tip: We recommend avoiding testimonials when describing the impact of your work. Of course you want to show that your audience is having a positive personal experience of your work, but that kind of data point isn’t what funders are looking at to gauge impact.
10. Avoiding Demographic Information (as a White Artist)
For white artists working in an industry that is already racist, it can be hard to answer demographic questions about yourself or your audience. You might feel like it will count against you if you are white and your audience is predominantly white. In some cases, it will count against you when funders are looking to support POC artists or support work that reaches underserved communities. If you’re being asked questions about demographics and the answer is that you and your audience are white, or predominantly white, you might try to obscure that information for fear that it hurts your chances.
We've seen people talk about themselves using national origin (for example) as a way to distance themselves from whiteness or avoid being connected to a racial identity. Face demographic questions head on; acknowledge who you are and who your audience is. If you aren’t happy with the honest answer to a question about demographics, you can use it as an opportunity to figure out how to decenter whiteness in your work.
The world of grants can be confusing for artists. Fractured Atlas is here to help. We’re here to help you learn how to find grants, and how to write about your art, and to share tips to improve your grant applications. We even share grant opportunities for artists every month.
About Nina Berman
Nina Berman lives in New York City and holds an MA in English from Loyola University Chicago. Before joining Fractured Atlas, she covered the publishing industry for an audience of publishers at NetGalley Insights. When she's not interviewing artists or sharing tips for navigating the art world on the Fractured Atlas blog, Nina makes ceramics at Center Point Ceramics Studio, hosts Planet Clambake on Newtown Radio, and is a member of the New Sanctuary Coalition pro-se legal clinic.