Writing  by Gia Miller

Photography by Justin Negard

Do you have a great idea, but you don’t have the money to fund it? Are you hoping to grow your business, but you don’t want to take out a loan? Is your artistic endeavor at a standstill because you can’t afford to take it to the next level?

A grant could be the answer, but applying for and winning that grant isn’t as easy as it may seem. So, we spoke to a local grant writer and a local artist who has served on several grant panels to learn how to apply for, and actually win, a grant. Spoiler alert: it’s a lot (and we mean a lot) of work.

Finding grants

 Grants come from private foundations, charities, corporations and all branches of government, and each one is looking for something very specific. For example, a quick search found a grant for artists who are using artificial intelligence to create “groundbreaking artwork.” Another was for minority businesses that want to “become part of corporate supply chains and build capacity for the future.” And a third gave grants to early-stage postdoctoral researchers who are conducting “independent basic experimental studies with humans required.” In other words, if you can imagine it (and even if you can’t), there’s a good chance there’s a grant for it.

Finding the right grant for your business and project is the first step, and because there are so many grants out there, it’s not an easy one. If you’ve never searched for grants before, begin by doing a basic Google search for your industry and the word “grants.” It will give you an idea of what’s available, even if it’s not exactly right for you. It might also lead you to various websites that list grants specifically for your industry.

If a Google search is overwhelming, there are some free resources, such as grants.gov, where you can narrow your search by keywords, category, agency and more. Creative Capital lists grants on its website and offers a free newsletter that lists grants for artists. Websites like candid.org and instrumentl.com list some grants publicly, but you’ll need a subscription, which can range from $55 per month to over $200 per month, to access their full database of grants.

Who can get a grant?

In theory, almost any business or entrepreneur can get a grant. But in reality, there are more grants for established businesses and organizations than for newly formed ones.

“If you’re just starting an organization, you should not expect to pay your bills through grants,” Miller explains. “It takes a certain amount of time to get a grant, and the chances of getting the grant are small when you don’t have a reputation. If you’re starting an organization, you should look for funding from individual donors or your board.” 

If you are an established organization, business or entrepreneur, then the next hurdle is finding the right grant opportunity for you.  

“Look at who else they’ve funded,” Miller recommends. “What they say they fund and what they actually fund is often very different. Look at the size of the organizations they’ve funded, where they’re located, the specific type of business, etc. They might say they fund the arts, but they only end up funding the visual arts, and they don’t fund drama. Or maybe they say they fund organizations of any size, but they never fund small ones, or they only fund small ones. If you’re asking for money and they’re telling you who they give money to, you need to keep that in mind.”

Turre says there are now more grants geared towards people of color, indigenous communities or people who are LGBTQ+, which she says she often hears complaints about. But, she says, there’s a reason for it.

“I would encourage people to look at who is winning grants in any field, even today,” she says. “Historically, people who have won grant funding or who have access to invitation-only grants were non-marginalized people. There was a need to create special grants for these groups because they weren’t getting funded, and there was an art the world was missing out on. It wasn’t coming from a place excluding white people. Instead, they want to close the gap.”

Once you’ve determined if or how you can qualify for the grant, you need to write your grant application correctly.

“In general, most grants tend to be focused on nonprofits,” says Michele A Miller, a Bedford resident who has worked as a grant writer for over two decades. “That means you must be a tax-exempt organization, a 501(c)(3), to apply. There are organizations and government entities that will give grants to for-profit businesses or individuals, but they’re more rare.”

And if you do find a grant that seems perfect for you, but it’s only for non-profits and you’re a for-profit business, there are ways around it.

“I recently won a grant where I had to get a fiscal sponsor, which is a nonprofit, to apply for me,” says Katonah-based musician Andromeda Turre who has served on three grant panels over the past two years. “The money had to go to a nonprofit, not an individual, so I asked a nonprofit I have a relationship with if they would apply for the grant on my behalf. I did all the paperwork, but they handed it in. And they’ll keep a portion of the funding as my fiscal sponsor, which I’m fine with because I still get a lot of funding.”

Applying for a grant

“I’ve talked to a lot of artists about grants in the last year,” says Turre. “I’ve spoken to dancers, photographers, painters, musicians – all different kinds of artists – and everybody I’ve talked to has said the grants available are often too constrictive. They make way for the people who have figured out the game of grant writing or can afford to hire a grant writer to do the work for them.”

 And grant applications are a time-consuming process.

“The last grant I applied for preoccupied my mind for about six weeks,” says Turre. “Even if I wasn’t actively writing the proposal, I was intensely focused on what I would do and what I needed to include.”

 Grants begin with a request for proposal (RFP) document from the organization or government entity. It details what information the applicants must provide. An RFP will ask you to describe everything from your goals to measurable outcomes. Knowing what to include in these descriptions (which often have a word limit) is what determines who receives the grant.

“Typically, somebody will come to me with a vague idea of their program, and I’ll help them match it to what’s available,” Miller explains. “Sometimes the program needs to change; other times, the organization is not really prepared for the kind of detail they must provide in their application. You must know how many staff members you need, the amount of time it will take, who you’re reaching out to, etc. There are lots of questions that I, and other professional grant writers, ask to help me understand the organization, what they’re looking for, and what they really want. Most of the time, the program isn’t 100 percent thought through in the way that is required for grant applications. But the good news is, once they apply for the grant, they have a better idea of what they’re going to do.”

 Turre says grant panels are provided with a list of metrics they must use to judge each application and decide who will receive the grant. She recommends you e-mail the grantor and ask for the metrics if you cannot find them in the application or on their website. But even when you know the metrics, it’s still difficult for a lot of talented and deserving people to get grants. She says grant writing is a scholarly exercise, which is very different from how many people approach their work. And without advanced degrees and that type of training, they simply don’t know how to properly complete their application.

“When I sat on a couple of the grant panels, there were projects that came across that I thought were absolutely incredible ideas,” she remembers. “I knew they would be fabulous, but we couldn’t fund them because they didn’t fit the metrics. We ended up giving the grant to someone with mediocre art because they hit the metrics. It’s really frustrating, as an artist, to sit on a panel and see brilliant art but not be able to fund it because it didn’t fit the parameters.”

Miller agrees.

“It’s not about the writing; people get this wrong,” she says. “It’s about shaping the program and meeting the expectations of the funder.”

It’s not easy, but it is possible

“Getting a grant is incredibly complicated and difficult,” says Turre.

“Every board I have ever worked with has said, ‘Let’s just apply for some grants,” says Miller. “If it was that easy, everybody would have grants, and money would be flowing all over the place. But it doesn’t work that way, and that’s why grants shouldn’t be the base of your funding.”

If you believe grants should be a part of your business, Miller says one of the other things you can do to improve your chances (besides hiring a grant writer, of course) is build relationships.

“It’s also about creating relationships and selecting program officers or trustees who have relationships with foundations,” she says. “If you match the requirements of a foundation’s grant, you probably have a stronger chance of getting the grant if you or your board has a strong relationship with the foundation.”

And sometimes, you may need multiple grants for one project.

“I wish somebody would just give me a MacArthur grant, which is about $800,000, and you can do whatever you want with it,” says Turre. “For my current project, I have to apply for a lot of different grants to get everything funded.”

 But if you have the time and know how to write a grant, it’s possible.

This article was published in the January/February 2024 print edition of Connect to Northern Westchester.

Grant writing tips

A

grant writer can turn your good idea into a winning proposal, but if you cannot afford one, here are some tips:

Establish the need for your program.

“You’ll need to explain how you’re filling a need,” Miller explains. “And then you’ll need to address the population you are serving. Are you doing arts education for kindergarteners because they’re not currently receiving it in school? You need to make the case for your program.”

Make sure you fit the parameters.

“I’ve turned down a lot of places because they didn’t fit the grant they wanted to apply for,” says Miller. “I’m not going to waste their time or money.”

Turre agrees.

“If you’re applying for a project that is about a group of people that you yourself are not a part of, especially if it’s a marginalized group of people, please make sure to include what your relationship is to the group and what is in it for them,” she advises. “Make sure you include something that actually helps those people or includes some kind of financial benefit for them. Don’t be predatory about it.”

Understand what they’re asking.

“Often, they assume you know what they’re asking, but you might not know what ‘describe how you will measure your outcomes’ means if you don’t have that scholarly training,” says Turre. “It prevents qualified people from getting the grant.”

“For my last grant application, which I won, I used ChatGPT to help me understand what they were asking,” she continues. “I typed in a detailed description of exactly what I wanted to do from start to finish. It was so long that I had to send it in three chat bubbles. Then I asked the questions I didn’t understand. I’d write, ‘Based on the above, how could I create a measurable outcome? Their suggestions helped me understand what the grant was looking for. Once I had that insight, I could write the answer. It was very helpful, but it definitely did not write the grant application for me.”

Be very clear.

“Make sure you describe the program and all the parameters, including the people and technology you might need,” Miller recommends. “You’ll need to submit a program budget, including direct and indirect staff. So, if you have a director, you’ll need to explain what percentage of their time will be dedicated to this program. You’ll also need to explain what type of benefits you’ll give the staff, even if they’re fringe.”

When asked for work samples, make sure they’re relevant.

“From a panelist perspective, there were some really great ideas, but the work samples didn’t show us they could do what they said that they wanted to do,” says Turre. “For example, I sat on a music panel, and one person applied to compose new music, but all three work samples were songs written by other people. They sounded phenomenal, and they were absolutely talented, but we had no idea if they could write music. So, we had to pass on their application.

Don’t assume they will know who you are.

“Even if you’re a well-known business or artist, the grant panel may not know who you are,” says Turre. “So, every chance you get, take the opportunity to explain your project. Utilize all the space you have to make sure whoever is reading your application has an understanding of who you are and what you want to do.”

Editor-in-Chief at Connect to Northern Westchester | Website | + posts

Gia Miller is an award-winning journalist and the editor-in-chief/co-publisher of Connect to Northern Westchester. She has a magazine journalism degree (yes, that's a real thing) from the University of Georgia and has written for countless national publications, ranging from SELF to The Washington Post. Gia desperately wishes schools still taught grammar. Also, she wants everyone to know they can delete the word "that" from about 90% of their sentences, and there's no such thing as "first annual." When she's not running her media empire, Gia enjoys spending quality time with friends and family, laughing at her crazy dog and listening to a good podcast. She thanks multiple alarms, fermented grapes and her amazing husband for helping her get through each day. Her love languages are food and humor.