Fundraising for Individual Artists 101

By Nancy Quinn


There is possibly nothing more baffling to an individual artist than fundraising. Production, no problem. PR, okay, got it. Fundraising — huh?

The reason for this confusion is pretty obvious: fundraising is for organizations, right? And if I, as an individual artist try to raise funds, isn’t that like… panhandling or something?

The truth is individual artists have conducted fundraising activities throughout history — much longer than organizations have, certainly longer than the whole tax-deductible thing has been around. The de Medici family of 15th and 16th Century Italy, for example, supported hundreds of individual artists, and that support resulted in extraordinary artistic treasures.

Still, the idea of patronage seems kind of icky today (well, icky and desirable at the same time), plus it doesn’t really happen much anymore (your parents and your Great-Aunt Susan being the exceptions.) So what’s a hardworking artist with big ideas supposed to do to raise money for her/his next big project?

1) Give yourself plenty of time! Don’t start thinking about fundraising the month before you want to stage that one-woman show. A year is best, six months minimum.

2) Get a fiscal sponsor. Before you talk to a single person about a donation, make sure you have a way for them to get the tax advantages of making said donation. A fiscal sponsor (also called a fiscal agent) is a non-profit organization that is incorporated for charitable purposes under section 501(c)(3) of the federal tax code. This organization may receive contributions for projects and programs related to its artistic mission, and pass the funds through to the project or program (that would be you, the individual artist). Most of the time, fiscal sponsors keep a percentage of pass-through funds for administration, and this is only fair since they are assuming full responsibility for administration of the grant, promising the grantmaker that you will do what you said you would do with their money. When looking for a fiscal agent your best bet is to go with an established fiscal sponsorship program, not just any old nonprofit organization. For theater and dance artists in the Bay Area, there is Intersection for the Arts, Dancers’ Group, DanceArts Inc., and CounterPULSE, all of which are highly reputable, with established and respected programs and staff that knows all the ins and outs of fiscal sponsorship. These organizations also provide other arts administration services for individual artists and small organizations, such as workshops and seminars on fundraising, PR, budgeting, and other important matters.

3) Launch a website, if you don’t have one already. Donors will want to find you, plus you can add a “Donate Now” link to your fiscal sponsor.

4) Got a website, got a fiscal agent, it’s time to research prospective funders. Head down to the Foundation Center in San Francisco, which has an excellent library and specific programs about fundraising for individuals. The librarians are great, so don’t be afraid to ask for help. If the Foundation Center is too much (it can be overwhelming), check out the fundraising calendars in Theater Bay Area’s (TBA) Management Memo or on in the Member’s Area — while many of the prospects on these calendars will be aimed at organizations rather than individuals, at least you’ll know that they fund dance and you can go to the websites to check out whether or not individuals are eligible to apply.

The truth is, only a handful of grantmakers in the Bay Area will fund individual artists, and some of them rotate disciplines (e.g., playwrights one year, choreographers the next), but here is a short list of funders to watch for: Zellerbach Family Foundation, TBA/Dancers’ Group CA$H Grant, San Francisco Arts Commission Individual Artist Commissioning Program, City of Oakland Cultural Arts Individual Artist Project Support Program, and Berkeley Civic Arts. Check the community foundations in your area (Peninsula Community Foundation, San Francisco Foundation, Marin Community Foundation, East Bay Community Foundation, etc.) for programs for individual artists. For works that involve collaborating partners, keep an eye on the Creative Work Fund, the Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation Commissioning Programs, the LEF Foundation, the Bernard Osher Foundation, and municipal funding agencies.

Practically all of these grantmakers have websites, so spend an afternoon online checking them out. Read the guidelines carefully: do they fund in your geographic area? Your type of project? Does your project fit into the funding period? (Sorry, it’s really impossible to get funding for a project that has already been completed.) Do you meet all of the eligibility requirements?

5) Once you’ve narrowed the field a bit, organize your prospects into a simple spreadsheet, and put the deadlines on a fundraising calendar.

6) Now you’re ready to write your first grant! (Oh boy!) Some of the funding programs (like CA$H and Zellerbach Family Foundation) have very simple application requirements: a brief project description, a self-explanatory application form, a short list of attachments. Others ask for a letter of inquiry (LOI), which is just a 2-3 page letter describing your project. Most grantmaker guidelines are pretty clear, but you can always call or email questions to the contact person — just be very sure that you have read the guidelines carefully first and are not asking a question that is covered in them!

Whatever the form of your request, you will need to describe your project (who, what, when, where, why, how). Clarity and succinctness are of the highest value when writing requests for support. If the guidelines include specific questions, make sure you answer them (this seems so obvious, but you have no idea how many proposals get written without any regard for what the grantmaker specifically wanted to know.) You will also likely need to include a brief bio of yourself and your collaborators, a project budget, a copy of your fiscal agreement, and your fiscal sponsor’s letter of tax-exemption. Other common attachments include work samples, press materials, letters of support, and financial statements for your last project and/or your fiscal sponsor, but don’t overload the package and really, if they say only include specific items, do not include anything but those specific items!

In the end, the best advice for grant-seeking individual artists is: be persistent and thick-skinned. Getting declined (we try not to say “REJECTED!”) by a foundation or government funder is (pick your adjective) exasperating, humiliating, awful, unreasonable, etc., but don’t give up. Call the program staff and ask what might have strengthened your request. Move on to the next submission on your fundraising calendar, armed with experience. Over time, if you keep trying and keep improving the way you communicate about your work, you will most certainly have success in raising money for it.

This article appeared in the July/August 2007 issue of In Dance.

NANCY E. QUINN is a Bay Area fundraising consultant whose 27-year practice has focused on nonprofit arts organizations in all disciplines.