EVERY ARTS ORGANIZATION will have to defend a seemingly indefensible situation to a potential funder at some point. Your first instinct might be to do everything you can to avoid mentioning an issue you think might be a red flag. While you never know for sure how carefully your proposal will be scrutinized, I don’t recommend ignoring the issue, in hopes that it will go undetected. From my many years of experience as a grantwriter, I have learned it is best to address most of these issues head-on, as directly as possible. That way, you can explain the situation clearly, lay out your plans for dealing with it, and communicate a positive, proactive message to the funder.
What kinds of organizational skeletons-in-the-closet might this advice apply to? Maybe you have a sizeable deficit or had to cancel your home season last year or your board lacks diversity (Still!). Whatever the particular problem, the first step is to determine what information the funder requires you to provide. Knowing this will help you figure out a strategy for presenting the problem in the best possible light.
For example, say you ran a deficit last year. Do you need to provide historical financial data or just a current operating budget? Are there any narrative questions about the organization’s general financial health? If the funder only requires a current budget and not any discussion of past financial history, then maybe you have lucked out and can avoid mentioning your organization’s deficit. Most likely, though, you will be required to provide data from last year. If last year was the only recent year with a deficit, emphasize the long-term financial health of the organization by providing an overview of the past five years of financial data. You can also explain any extenuating circumstances that contributed to the deficit, such as an investment in a new program that hasn’t yet started generating revenues.
A situation in which contributed income or box office revenues were much lower than projected can also be framed in a way that emphasizes the organization’s strengths. For instance, if tickets for your last show were down significantly, provide an honest assessment of why you think this happened (not enough spending on advertising, a new venue with which your long-time audience was unfamiliar, etc.). Follow up with a discussion of your original reasons for pursuing this course of action, what you learned from the results, and how this will inform your future plans. Again, clear details are key.
Achieving Clarity in 250 Characters
How does one manage to do all this when grant proposal questions tend to be excruciatingly specific and space so limited? There is always a way, even though it may not be obvious until you sit down to write the narrative. If you keep your objective in mind as you begin to write, you should be able to find a good place to discuss and clarify the “red flag” situation. A little creativity and finesse will help you find a way to link seemingly disparate pieces of information. Presenting the organization as an integrated system, with each part impacting the other, will lay the groundwork for making these connections. By discussing both strengths and challenges, you will be able to demonstrate the innovation and creativity that are at the core of the organization’s operations and its artistic product.
The main goal of any funding proposal is to convey a message with clarity and authority, and to keep the reader’s attention focused on what you’re saying, not what you aren’t. Committing fully to addressing any thorny organizational issues will help you convince funders that the organization is worthy and deserving of their funding.