Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Grant Writing 001 for Theater Companies: How to Win your First Grant

by Ben Cikanek, co-Artistic Director of Firework Theater

To clarify, our young company does not have a long history of grant writing (or grant-winning) for that matter. We secured our first funding from NYSCA in 2011 and have a handful of other applications in the works. At a recent seminar at The Field, I offered up a few pieces of practical guidance which were fresh in my memory from our first-ever grant writing efforts and Audra asked me to articulate them for the benefit of other first-timers. So, here they are:

(1) Take a deep breath. The road is long. Expect to apply for your first grant one year from today. There is a lot to do before you start filling out forms.

(2) Initial research. Visit The Field alone or with your co-producer. There is a binder of grant opportunities which approximately mirrors the monthly mailing The Field sends out to its members. This binder will give you a sense of the annual lifecycle of application opportunities (it also includes complete copies of other member companies' past grant applications). Write down the grants that you think may be appropriate for your organization. Next, get online and visit the homepages of theater companies that are a few years further down the path you intend to follow. Write down where these companies are gaining support, as well. Track everything in a spreadsheet.

(3) Consult the guru. Set up a meeting with Audra. Run your ideas by her. For instance, you'll say "Can I apply for NYC's Department of Cultural Affairs funding?" And Audra will say, "Only if you already have your own 501(c)(3)." Audra will guide you well, but you'll want to be organized before you meet with her. Make sure you come in with a list of grants, deadlines, and your overall fund-raising goal. She may have a couple additional ideas for you in terms of grant opportunities or resources for additional research. She will definitely tell you to find less competitive grant opportunities by getting specific: What is it about your work that makes you different from everyone else? If you fill a very specific niche, and you can find a funding organization that exclusively supports this specific niche, you're on the right track. In any case, try to leave your meeting with no more than ten viable options.

(4) Research deep dive.
It's time to get into the detail. Do deep research into each organization. Why do they exist? Who have they funded in the past? Who are the key members of the staff? You need to confirm, based on your research, that each grant you are considering is appropriate for your company, or will be within the next few years after you grow into your own mission and purpose. Try to narrow down your options to six possibilities.

(5) Begin to build relationships. Call the appropriate department heads from each organization on your list. Introduce yourself and your company. Let them know that you are calling because you are hoping to apply for a future funding cycle and you simply want to introduce yourself. If I'm having a good conversation with someone, I like to ask practical questions like:
• Based on my research, I feel like our company might be a good fit for your XYZ grant, but can you tell me in your own words what kind of organizations or projects you are looking to fund?
• What is the best way for us to start to build a relationship with your organization? Is there someone in particular we can invite to future shows or readings?
• Do you ever award companies their first grant, or do you generally want an applicant to have a history of past support?
• Can I add you to our mailing list?

In my experience, funding organizations do not want to review applications that are a bad match for their program. They are usually very happy to give you the raw truth: don't bother applying this year--we don't have any money; or your company really isn't a good match for us; or in a few years you guys might want to apply but you're just not a mature enough organization yet.

Right after you hang up the phone, send a follow-up email thanking them for the conversation. Even if you are a company of one, you should operate like a business professional. I went to business school, and I can tell you that everything you need to know about professionalism you learned in grammar school: be polite; be thoroughly prepared for every conversation; read and follow application instructions thoroughly; be punctual. You absolutely do not want to be the company apologizing for submitting a late application.

Log your initial (and all subsequent) conversations into your grant tracking spreadsheet. Your spreadsheet should function as a rudimentary relationship management tool. You always want to be able to start an email by saying, "We last spoke in March about XYZ topic and I am following up with you because..."

After these initial calls, you should try to narrow down your list of potential grant applications to three.

(6) Nurture your relationships. Send postcards for your shows. Make them aware of positive press attention you may be receiving.
Invite them (plus guests) to see your work. Be there when they show up. Have a reserved sign on their seat. Thank them for coming in-person and subsequently via email. Track all of this correspondence in your spreadsheet.

(7) Apply. My producing partner and I use Google Docs for our grant applications because we can both concurrently revise a single document from different locations. Give yourself a month for each application, writing and rewriting over the course of four or five sessions. If you have a supportive contact within the funding organization, ask them if they'd be willing to review your application and offer you feedback on it before you submit. If not, find someone who can. Don't forget that The Field requires fourteen days to review your application before they submit it on your behalf. We like to write in a simple, conversational tone in the first person plural. Surrender yourself to the fact that your company and its accomplishments are exactly what they are--no more and no less. Articulate yourself clearly and concisely, and then...

(8) Move on. Most organizations do not allow you to request funds in excess of 15% of your project's total budget so temper your financial expectations. As I mentioned in Step 1, the road is long and the amount of effort you need to devote to each application is significant. By the time you are done applying for three grants, it'll likely be time to start reapplying the following year.

So, that's what we have learned over the past year. I would love to hear your personal experiences and perspectives with grant writing, so please share them below!

Best of luck,
Ben Cikanek
co-Artistic Director
Firework Theater

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