Thursday, September 11, 2008

How to Get Grants

An article I wrote recently on how to get grants has been published in the Funds for Writers newsletters. I am posting it here as well.

How to Get Grants
B.J. Epstein

In the past year alone, I’ve been the recipient of 16 different grants. Eleven of these were on behalf of a major international conference I organized and five were for me individually. Of those five, one was a grant for my academic research on the translation of children’s literature, two were for my writing (one of those two paid half of the costs for me to attend a writing workshop), one helped pay for me to attend a conference, and the most recent one is to support my work translating a novel from Swedish to English. In this same year, I applied for two other grants that I did not receive; the rejection letter for one explained that the foundation preferred to support people further along in their doctoral studies and encouraged me to apply again next year. This means that out of approximately 18 applications/requests (it is possible that I may be forgetting something here), I had a success rate of close to 90%. The total sum of these grants was over $30,000.
So how have I been so successful? What are my tips for getting grants? Here, I will give you the secret to my success.

-Research is the first step. This is the same advice I’d give if you were, say, looking to query a publication or apply to an MFA program. You should carefully study any information the foundation or other grant-giving body provides, whether it is just a blurb in a newsletter or a multi-paged, detailed website. You must understand what the foundation is looking for and whether you fit the profile, so you don’t waste both your time and theirs. If you are unsure, call or email them and tell them a little bit about yourself and your project and see if they think you should apply. If you do contact them, don’t take up too much of their time. There are reference books on grants at many libraries and bookstores and helpful newsletters and websites, so use these resources, too.

-Apply for any grant that is even slightly relevant, no matter how small the amount of money they offer is. Remember that each grant you receive helps you get the next one by showing other potential sponsors that people already believe in you. Also, of course, even small sums matter, especially for struggling writers. The smallest sum I received was $100 but it still made a difference to me and it helped build the “grants received” section of my CV.

-Write excellent letters/essays. Here again is where the research comes in; refer to the foundation or organization in particular and explain why what you are doing fits in with their goals and how it will benefit them to support you. Do not just explain why and how they can help you. They already know you are looking for money and they are surely inundated with letters from people like you. State what you can do for them. If it is a foundation that focuses on supporting writers from a certain region, discuss your connection to that region and how your work is inspired by it. If you are applying for a grant and you know your project is a bit different from what they usually choose to sponsor, make sure you tell them why you felt it was worthwhile to apply anyway and why your project relates to their foundation. Do not send a form letter for every grant you apply for. You must personalize each application by referring to the particular foundation and their objective.

-In your application pack, include all the information they ask for. Do not send anything they don’t really need, as that just creates more work for them. Don’t try to impress them with extra reference letters or by sending many samples of your work. Similarly, don’t send them less than they ask for, as they can not thoroughly judge you then. Follow the instructions precisely or you will end up overwhelming and/or annoying them.

-Check the grammar and spelling of everything you send. Remember that if a foundation receives a letter riddled with misspellings and odd grammar, they will not feel confidence in your writing skills and they will be glad to have a reason to swiftly reject you rather than have to spend time reading your application.

-Always be polite in your dealings with the foundation. Sounds obvious, right? Well, I have had to deal with secretaries of foundations who spelled my name wrong or addressed me as Mr. (I am a Ms.), but I always politely correct them, or just let it go, rather than write a rude email such as, “My name is clearly spelled in my signature! How hard is it to get it right?” I have also had meetings, such as on behalf of the conference, with people who were clearly unsure about me and whether I could pull off the project. Sometimes such people made harsh comments that hurt my feelings. I always stayed calm and polite and just explained again who I was and what I could do for them. Offending people is a sure way of not getting the grant.

-If you need letters of reference, ask the referees early (i.e. weeks before the application is due) and give them all the information they need. Give them the name and address for where they should send their letters. Provide letters and stamps if snail mail is required. Tell them all about the foundation and why you think this grant suits you. Give them the latest copy of your CV, your list of publications, writing samples, and anything else that is appropriate, so they have enough information about you to write a good letter. One of my grants came from a foundation in Sweden. None of my referees knew Swedish, so they could not read the website that offered information on how the letters were to be written and what issues should be addressed in them. Therefore, I translated all the relevant details for my referees. I was later told how helpful this was. Make the process of writing letters as easy for your referees as possible.

Following the steps above should help you as you apply for grants. But writing a great letter and being polite is not all that you need to do. Here are a few final tips for after you’ve submitted your application:

-Here’s another obvious point. Thank your referees and anyone else who has helped you as you applied. For one application, the administrator actually took the time to let me know that one of my references hadn’t arrived and since the reference was coming abroad, she offered to accept the letter by e-mail for the time being. The letter did eventually arrive, but the fact that she both let me know and helped me find a solution to the problem was something I definitely thanked her for. It’s good manners to be grateful to anyone who goes out of their way for you.

-If you do not get a grant and no reason has been given, whether in the letter to you or else on their websites (such as in the form of a press release about what projects they have supported and why or in statistics), write to the administrators and ask if they can tell you why. Say that you would like to know so you can make your application stronger for the next time. Whether they give you this information or not, if you do apply again, clearly state both that you have applied before and that you have developed since your last application. Then say what you have done differently and/or what is new with your project since you last applied.

-Add all the grants you’ve received to your CV and your website. As I said above, the knowledge that others have sponsored and believed in you often can have a domino effect that makes additional foundations look at you differently.

- Many foundations require a detailed report of what you did, sample work finished during the time of the grant, and complete budgets for how you spent the money. Keep careful track of all the money you have spent. Get receipts and have a running spreadsheet for the period of your project. Depending on the grant, different things count: if you bought a pen or a notebook or an ink cartridge for your printer, if you traveled by train to a workshop, if you bought groceries, workshop fees, if you took time off work, etc. Be very clear in advance about what you can use the money for. Provide the foundation with the complete budget and report and anything else they want to see by the deadline they give you.

I hope this advice will help you successfully apply for more grants!


Anonymous said...

Excellent advice! Be clear, be certain, be honest. The funding community communicates within and among its members, beyond apparent boundaries. Don't fudge, sugarcoat, or conceal.

The writer's track record is phenomenal; many view a 1 in 4 as a great return. Remember it is not about you. It is about what need you fill for the funder.

Also, your research must be timely. Things change, sometimes radically, with a few months or a year. Read the organization's annual report if possible.

Keep funders and potential funders on your mailing list. This field is about relationships. Don't wait until the end of the grant period or the development of a problem to contact your funders. Just as you would call a friend with great news, send a note to the funder with milestones, new developments and opportunities.

And your mother was right - send a thank you note! No, not an email. Take time to write it with your own hand. It does matter!

B.J. Epstein said...

Thank you for your comment, Judith, and for adding some more tips. I completely agree, especially about the honesty part. Too many people think they have to pretend to be something they're not in order to get a grant, and that's simply not true. Lies will catch up to you in the end, too.
Best wishes,