Hire a writer who has already submitted a successful proposal for the same funding you are applying for.
There, that’s it. You can stop reading now (not recommended), or continue on (very recommended) to find out why.
Quite a number of years ago I hired a phenomenally talented technical writer who worked for the United Nations over the previous five years. She wrote articles and briefs in multiple languages, addressed to local and foreign dignitaries of all kinds. Her resume and portfolio were astounding.
We worked for four solid months on a funding application to record and publish four songs, our emails bouncing back and forth all over the globe. One month her emails came from Argentina and another month Sweden. I lost track after that, most likely out of jealousy. My HQ at the time didn’t move let alone have any windows to the outside world – less natural light than the Ninja Turtles’ lair.
The proposal was coming together brilliantly. It looked great, sounded great, met all the requirements the funder wanted (a big national arts council). It even had a 7-syllable word. My application had it all; good looks and smarts.
While she tinkered with words I drafted up the press kit.
Then, with a smile and a “How could they not approve this?” (yes, I distinctly remember thinking this), I slipped the package into a FedEx box and fired it off across the country.
The due date of March 4th, etched in my mind like a scar, came and went. So did the 2 month processing time.
I busied myself with other tasks until I couldn’t take it anymore. Caving, I called the arts council, “Did you receive my package?”
“Yes, we did. Thank You for your application…” A long silence.
“Great. Was it approved?”
“Well, sir…” My mind starts filling in the blanks. I know before she tells me. “…we considered all applications sent to us, and the panel decided not to move forward with your application.”
That was it. Not a word otherwise. She wouldn’t even transfer me to a human who, with their superpowers of empathy – or at the very least sympathy – would give me some more information.
Just a dead-end, that’s all she was. A living better-luck-next-time, punctuated with the click of a hanging up phone.
A few months later, I made a new friend over coffee who, it turns out, has submitted countless successful applications for grants all throughout the country. “Here, use my guy,” he said.
So I did, and promptly learned the value of working with a tried and true winner.
What a winning grant writer has that you need:
* Experience – These writers know what each funder wants. They intimately know the requirements for each grant, including the checklists. Attention to detail is paramount (note: If your project is a studio recording, read about saving money on your project).
* Success – You wouldn’t be applying for a grant if your goal wasn’t winning. In order to win, you want a winner and access to their winning reputation. It’s rare for grant writers to share copies of successful grants or even tips amongst themselves. Even the Internet (!!) lacks good examples. So you want someone who has had success. Just by having some writer’s name on your proposal will give you the “in” you need.
* Relationships – This might be the most important benefit of all. Grant writers often have contacts within organizations who can offer insights. This inside-trader info can be a huge God-send. Add to this their relationships with other artists who’ve successfully received the grant and you have leverage to improve the standing of your application. The networking also opens doors for future opportunities.
Finding THE Grant Writer
Finding the successful grant writer is the challenge. After all, the good ones are working and reached almost exclusively through word-of-mouth. I recommend calling the funder (organization accepting applications) and ask if they have a list of past successful writers on file. You may not get this information from the gatekeeper/receptionist. If not, I recommend doing a little research on the funder’s website and trying a different angle.
A lot of websites have an ‘About’ or a ‘Team’ section that shows the names of staff and their titles. Find a manager or coordinator and call them. Don’t call the little guys, call the bosses.
If you’re not sure if you have the right person simply say, “I don’t know if you’re the right person to talk to, but I’m looking to hire a grant writer to apply for one of your grants. Could you provide the names of grant writers that have successfully submitted to you before?”
Review panels hate reading bad proposals – nobody does – and will do anything to reduce the number of bad ones that come in. They also have contacts and a network to keep happy. Referrals are an easy way to scratch someone’s back.
If the call to management is a dead-end, go back to the website and find the list of past grant winners. Contact them using the same script. If the funder isn’t cooperative, artists usually are. They’ll be empathetic to your situation and hey, everyone likes the chance to sound important every once in a while.
Lastly, if the above doesn’t work a) I’d be surprised but b) I’d try free services like Craiglist.org or Kijiji.com to find someone in your area. Don’t overestimate face-to-face time; working with someone you can meet over coffee is a huge bonus when you work together for any length of time. If there aren’t any writers responding in your area, try Elance.com or try a Google search for “Grant writers in [city name].” Review any results to see who has successfully submitted a proposal to the foundation you’re going after.
What a Writer Wants from You
A great writer won’t submit a terrible application. I’ve never seen a dumpster outside of a foundation’s building before, but I have no doubt it’s brimming with terrible, awful and/or horrendous applications. I cringe at the amount of embarrassing proposals I sent off before developing my rolodex of successful writers.
A great grant writer doesn’t want to be in that bin; they want to be neatly filed in a drawer that says “Funded.” The easiest place to make sure that doesn’t happen is before they’re hired. Great writers are selective with who they work with.
What a great successful writer wants from you:
* A clear understanding of your project – Your hired writer isn’t your mom or your psychic. He or she needs a good amount of insight from you about what your project is and the direction you want to go with the proposal. The better you understand your project and how it fits into the funding you’re applying for the better you can guide your writer.
* Enough time – I know you want everything done yesterday – we all do – but any good writer worth their weight in worn-out keyboards needs a good chunk of time (read: several months) to complete a high quality proposal. You won’t attract great grant writers if the timeline is too short. Plan well in advance and make sure you have time to dedicate to answering questions and providing information.
* Enough Money – This is a serious no-brainer. I thought about leaving it out but I’ve seen so many musicians try the “I’ll give you a percentage of the grant when I cash the big oversized cheque” scam. This has a name – contingency pay – and in my limited legal understanding it’s very frowned upon in North America (read: unethical). A good writer, which is what you want, will ask to get paid up front or at intervals throughout the process. Make sure you have the cash. You’ll be looking at $80-200 an hour.
In case you’ve read this far and haven’t got the core of my message yet, hire a great grant writer. The world needs great independent musicians. Great grant writers will help you get funded to get you there.
Discussion: Share your grant writing adventures in the comments below.
About the Author: Brandon Waardenburg
Founder of Apparatus (an artist accelerator providing music advice and education to independent artists) as well as a musician, songwriter, “musicpreneur” and consultant. After receiving his Bachelors in Music back in 2011 he began working alongside independent artists, songwriters, producers and engineers in their quest to retain creative control.
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[Pen and money picture from Shutterstock.]