OVER THE MANY YEARS that I have been working with artists and arts organizations on institutional fundraising (aka grantwriting), I have learned that one of the most important jobs of a grantwriter is to provide context for any request made to a funder. Like the dance artist who must provide a framework for the movement phrases he or she creates, so too must the grantwriter, professional or not, embed the proposal’s project or program within a larger setting in order to clearly articulate its value and message.
This may seem obvious, but when you sit down to write a grant request to a funder such as the Zellerbach Family Foundation, the overriding temptation is to describe your project in its most linear fashion, from point A to point B. If you do so, though, you risk undermining your chances of success by limiting the funder’s perception of your project to the smaller details, such as the length of the finished product, the names of the artists involved, the number of performances, and where it will premiere. By expanding the discussion to include your larger artistic context—e.g. how a project fits into your existing body of work, aligns with the interests you will be pursuing over the next few years, relates to the work of others in the field, and supports the mission and activities of your organization (if you have one)—you automatically give your project greater credibility, as well as make a more compelling case for why it deserves funding.
This does not mean, however, that you park the passion and excitement you have for your project at the door. It is essential that this comes through, even in your discussion of context. Articulating the relationship between your latest project and your past work, for example, is an opportunity to demonstrate that there is something that matters deeply to you—a pressing social issue, fascination with an artistic orientation or approach, a restless creativity—underlying your individual works and connecting them to each other. When you bring that sense of commitment to your discussion of context, then you will have a uniformly strong and much more forceful case for a project that is perceived as alive, robust, energetic.
If your project is still in its embryonic state, this may seem like a Herculean task. Focusing on context, though, can actually help you find a way to support your case for funding. By drawing connections between your emerging ideas about the project and the last three to five years of work you have created, and articulating how the subject matter, creative process, collaborative aspects of it, and other have evolved from your earlier works, you will make the project more tangible to the funder and give it life. For a project that represents a completely new direction, write about what compelled you to make the change and what you want to accomplish by taking this new approach.
Figuring out how to impart the contextual information that you want into a particular funder’s narrative framework, with its specific questions and length restrictions, sometimes requires a large, creative leap of faith. But as long as your message clearly and compellingly reflects your artistic intent, you will have accomplished something important—you will have distinguished your funding request from the multitude of other proposals that cross any funder’s desk. After that, it’s all out of your hands, with the final act TBD.