The marvelous, astute and completely fabulous Irene Lemon is a freelance grant writer, winning $4.1 million AUD in the last 7 years for projects for her clients in Regional NSW, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu. We’re also very proud that she’s a creative industries business advisor for us, and the boss of award winning music company Magic Electricity Box.
Here she shares her four rules for writing successful grant proposals.
Without a doubt, almost every artist or arts group I have spoken to throughout my career as a business advisor, artist and creative entrepreneur, has asked me “what grants are there for me”?
It is challenging seeing their face drop with disappointment or heat up with indignant disbelief after I explain that grants are everywhere but it’s up to you to figure out which one is right for you and my recommendation is to find another way to get some money. Getting a grant is just as demanding work as selling your art or starting a business, so it’s important to have the right research and planning in place to help. Here are my rules to help you if going for a grant is your preference.
What do you want a grant for?
Usually, when an artist or group is asking for money, they generally are looking at their operating costs and wondering how they can keep going with no money to fund their day to day operations, or they are looking for a cash injection to pay for a project that really should be paying for itself with savvy revenue strategies. The hardest situation is working with an artist who is obsessed about their “little” project and their cash flow to the detriment of any project impact that might be possible for their community or network of artists. None of these scenarios are attractive to funding decision makers.
It is here that the conversation can get really interesting: “Just because there is nothing there for you yet, you could start thinking about strategies to make your ideas and networks more attractive for grants, or (and here is the best bit) create a project or creative business that can operate totally independent of grants”.
It might turn out that you don’t even need a grant!
Rule Number 1: Understand what a grant is.
Do you know why Grants are available? Grants are an extension of government policy, and funds are periodically made available for achieving local, state and federal aims and outcomes.
As a recipient of grant money, I can tell you the joy and euphoria of being awarded the cash for a successful application that you have poured your heart, soul and endless hours of planning, writing and editing into, is very short lived. Yes, it really is lovely to have the application acknowledged as good enough for the award or the money, and there is a heart-in-throat moment when you receive the notification of the decision, but then you get the funding contract and the heavy realisation settles; your idea now must become a reality and there are conditions to how you can use this money, terms under which you have to demonstrate good governance for those funds and probably progress reports, evaluations and acquittals to contend with. And this honoring of the contract does not take into account the variables and challenges that project management throws at you as you strive for “outcomes”. Because really, that is what a grant is – Payment for outcomes or output that satisfies the rules of the grant terms and conditions.
A grant is not free money!
A grant is more often than not an extension of a government policy. A grant is different from a prize or cash payment associated with an award, and there are some private philanthropic groups who offer grants but for the most part you are more than likely going to be researching, planning and writing for a state, federal or local government pool of money. And with great investment, comes great responsibility. Are your spidey senses tingling?
Accessing government flows of money, such as a grant, is time consuming and your application is required to meet certain criteria. Other grant providers, such as philanthropic organisations or private foundations, are also looking for bang-for-the-buck outcomes for their investment. A good rule of thumb that I follow is that for every $1 of grant money, my business can expect to spend 30 cents in meeting the expectations of fulfilling the grant, such as reporting and grant administration. It’s rare that a grant will help you to make a profit!
And this should get you thinking about…
Rule Number 2: Finances are key.
You want to unlock the secret to being an attractive grant recipient? Be good at what you do and have the numbers to prove it. You do not need to have endless profits or capital that would solve the problems for a small third world country, but a solid financial basis that proves your ability to manage money, demonstrate sound financial operations and illustrate your ability to be transparent with expenses and income is essential. Taxpayers money, which is essentially what the grant is composed of, must be carefully reported on, and handing the money over to an organisation who has shoddy money management practices is going to cause headaches. It is bad enough that politicians spend ridiculous amounts of taxpayer money on all their “outcomes”, let’s not add to the situation by emulating poor fiscal strategies!
But what can you do if you’re not setup for financial management or you are new to the process? Think about auspicing. This leads us to…
Rule Number 3: You need your network to work.
I have had three of my projects under auspice from arts organisations who are equipped to deal with grants and manage projects. Their help and support has been invaluable in so many ways. Like the time I ran a school holiday program and two of my venues changed their dates because of a clash with other community events. My funding rules stipulated I needed to visit these communities, in the year the grant was awarded and I just could not pull it off. The timing was wrong and the community wanted a different date that was outside of the arrangements I had agreed to with the funder. So, my auspicing organisation wrote to our funder and negotiated on a change in the terms.
In fact, the project would not have been possible without the conversations and support available through my network. I was able to take my ideas, refine my offering and learn heaps about grant writing and submissions from the brilliant organisation Arts North West, and two women: Jane Kreis and Caroline Downer. I was also able to contribute to meaningful conversations about regional communities, particularly youth activities, by sharing the results of my program impact with other people in my network who wanted to hear good stories about our community; like the radio station, newspapers and not-for-profit groups who also want to engage in the types of creative work I do!
In the grant application, I was able to talk about those networks and how they support my work and how they benefit. I also consult with special groups in my networks to understand problems in my region and how my creativity and arts practice can help. And with so many eyes looking, I am emailed possible grants to apply for, every day! The amount of time this cuts down for me is hours and hours of researching. I still look for opportunities, and I share grants with my network too. I also ask my most trusted colleagues and professional friends read my applications and proof read my work. Really, there is no excuse for a sloppy application.
Your network can also help you with the burden of managing a creative project. For an artist, a project can be any type of activity that you set your heart to, that’s the beauty of creativity! For a grant application though, this definition helps: A project is a system of tasks that you bring together to answer a problem, achieve a result or find an answer. The key concept here is: SOLVE A NEED. Exploring problems, and challenges that your art can “solve”, often negates the issue of “is there a grant for me” and puts this discussion back where it belongs: “where can I get funding for my really good idea that lots of other people really like and I have researched the issue and this is the best solution I can come up with that everyone is really happy with and they have given me support, supporting letters and their in-kind time to help me complete”. Notice the difference between these two perspectives?
It’s not about you!
And this perspective also holds water for solo artists exploring professional development opportunities too. The more invested in emerging artists, who can develop their work for the benefit of the Australian arts community, the better, bringing to mind Robyn Archer’s 2015 ArtsHub keynote address. She likened the creative industries landscape to the growing forest, and really made a point of the resilience needed by an ecosystem to survive and thrive. “If you take care of the stuff at ground level, the stuff that feeds the forest and allows the canopy to flourish, then you are being ever mindful of resilience, and continually building the forest’s capacity to absorb an unexpected disturbance”. Solo artists are the ground cover, living and breathing under the old growth trees and your work is contributing to an ecosystem of creativity. Your application for a funding request should at the very least convey your awareness of this phenomena.
Talk to as many people, and organisations, as you can about your practice, ideas and possible solutions to the challenges you can identify.
Rule Number 4: Explore the options of making your creative vision come to life WITHOUT a grant.
I know, I keep banging on about this BUT, having won several grants, administered and acquitted my grants and those of others, and worked in several funded projects, it’s a tough gig!
Sometimes, a grant investment in your work can be a curse, especially if you do not honor the terms and conditions or you have a falling out with your funder or there is a policy shift, or even change in Government. The Australia Council suffered a rude shock when funding was torn out of their budget and the Federal backlash caused upset across the creative industries. If your creative enterprise is solid, breaking even and sustainable WITHOUT a grant, then changes like this are easier to manage. And with crowdfunding options, e-commerce and all the small business management support you can poke a stick at there really is no excuse for not thinking it through. You’re in no better hands than with Monica Davidson and the Creative Plus Business crew (thanks Irene – M)!
If you are working with vulnerable communities, or on a project that has public appeal, you can look at sponsorship funds or in-kind contributions to help you achieve your goals.
In fact, I have observed groups and artists who have credibility with sponsors and local fundraising initiatives are far more attractive to grants bodies because they have demonstrated an ability to mitigate risk!
A final thought: Preparation is the key!
Understanding what policies are operating or coming up for your region is a good market research strategy to start your preparation. I recommend speaking to your local council representative and looking at the local council website. You can also review State government opportunities and federal websites to access grant information. And never pay for this information! In your research, be on the lookout for awards and prizes.
Again, it’s about finding the focus of those prizes and applying to the strict criteria. Here, web searches will be the most valuable avenue. Google search for Awards like innovation, superstar or if you’re of a particular gender, try that too!
A VERY IMPORTANT NOTE: if you are paying for the “privilege” to access grant application opportunities, think VERY VERY carefully about spending your hard-earned dollars on uncertain outcomes. Credible grant opportunities from reputable sources are freely available to communities and businesses and for good reason. The outcomes and the best fit for the funds available are a transparent process, and the grant application process reflects this.
So, you think your business is ready? What next? Get some grant writing skills! Try a workshop, speak to a grant writer, look online for grant writing tips. There are many opportunities for you to grow your abilities to write compelling proposals.
For NSW, I go to:
and review the tab: https://www.nsw.gov.au/our-initiatives
There is also a place for searching the website, and I recommend your search for “grant” in the search field to get the top hits.
Other opportunities can be found on the federal government website:
And there is a grant finder service:
Assess your finances, measure your values and purpose to the criteria and start writing!
Review your money systems strengthen your operations and systems. This is good business sense and should be done as a matter of course, not just for grant opportunities.
Seriously ask yourself if you can afford to attract grant money into your business? A grant comes with considerable responsibility and costs, and the reporting process alone has brought many a creative small business operator unstuck. The consequences of a poorly acquitted grant can affect your reputation, finances and creative business for a long time.
There are other capital and funding options available to the savvy business owner, from crowdfunding to innovating into new markets. A supportive advisor can assist you map your opportunities here too, and I believe you can’t get any better than the Creative Plus Business team (again, thanks you gorgeous woman you! – M).
Good luck with your application, and if you need a hand, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org!
 Archer R (n.d) Keynote Address, ArtsHub Conference. para 8 Accessed April1, 2016 from http://www.australiacouncil.gov.au/news/media-centre/speeches/artshub-conference-robyn-archer-ao/
Irene is a freelance grant writer, winning over $3 Million AUD in the last 7 years for projects in Regional NSW, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu. Magic Electricity Box is a creative art house company, with in-house graphic poster artist, independent music publishing services and products, songwriting mentoring, creativity coaching and grant writing consultancy services. We are based in Armidale NSW and we travel anywhere.
Magic Electricity Box: creativity without the drama.
 Archer R (n.d) Keynote Address, ArtsHub Conference. para 8