When I was in sixth grade, my teacher, Mr. Leidy at Arthur Elementary in Norfolk, Virginia, handed out a “test”. It was in homeroom, and he said it was an “exercise” more than a traditional test. (This is the same guy who welcomed my hamster Hermie into the classroom as our class pet, after Hermie started getting harassed by Harry, who shared his cage at home. We thought Hermie and Harry were both boy hamsters until Harry had a bunch of nasty-looking baby hamsters. But that’s another story.) Mr. Leidy was one of my favorite teachers ever. He talked to us like we were adults and expected us to act accordingly. When it was sweltering hot in the afternoons, he’d turn off the lights, open the windows, and read us stories. When we got restless, he’d make the whole class go outside and run laps.
So this particular day, as he handed out this “exercise”, we eagerly dug in. It was one page with a list of directions on one side, and blank on the other. The directions were numbered. The first one read:
- Before beginning this exercise, read ALL of the directions.
And directions 2-10 were about what to draw on the back side of the page – pretty complicated stuff involving some geometry, and ultimately folding the paper into a certain shape. But direction #11 said this:
11. Ignore all of the directions 2-10, and quietly put down your pencil and wait for the teacher to end the exercise.
So, obviously, if you didn’t follow the first direction, you “failed” the exercise – and it was blatantly apparent to everyone in the room if you passed or failed.
Fortunately, I’ve always been a “scanner”. When I read a long article, or a “how-to”, or even terrible Ikea directions on putting together, say, a crib, I always scan the whole thing first, to know what I’m in for. I did the same that day. I also tend to dig in and get focused very quickly, and could just have easily missed that last direction and tucked in to the work, determined to be the first person done. Instead, I noted the last direction, put my pencil down, and calmly looked up at Mr. Leidy. Probably with a slightly smug look on my face.
Eventually, the rest of the class noticed those of us who weren’t busily drawing and folding, and figured out what they too were supposed to be doing. It caught most of them by surprise. And after a lot of laughing and what I’d now call a “debrief” about the exercise, we went about our usual classroom business. But I never forgot it.
Why have I told you this story? Because now, almost thirty years later, I’m serving on a grant panel for the National Endowment for the Arts, and I’m reminded of that day so long ago when my peers were simply not following directions.
I’m a reader for the NEA Challenge America Fast-Track grants submitted this past spring, and while I as much as anyone understand the allure and excitement of having not just the funding but also the recognition of our federal arts agency, I’m learning just how obvious it is when you haven’t read the directions – OR when you’ve read them, but are trying to ignore them, or make them work for your project – kind of like trying to smooth out creases in a folded piece of paper. Which, it turns out, is impossible.
To that end, I’ve decided to compile my own list of eleven directions – recommendations, actually – for anyone who is applying for an NEA grant. Indeed, this list could be used for almost any grant. I’m writing this because I strongly believe we should stop spinning our wheels when it comes to going after foundation funding. If the fit isn’t there, don’t bother. And if you aren’t going to take the time to craft a brilliant application, PLEASE don’t bother.
This list is written from the viewpoint of a panelist, or grant reviewer. Let’s begin:
1. Read the guidelines. Duh, right? But don’t just read them. Read them ten times, and make absolutely sure that your program or mission is a fantastic fit. If the guidelines say the foundation will only fund small, one-time projects, don’t apply for a grant for your 10-month multidisciplinary season and say that the funding will be used for what you do during a certain month in that season. It just doesn’t work. And don’t apply if you have to look at your mission through beer goggles to make the fit work.
2. Story matters most. But so do numbers. Tell your story, and do it succinctly. Back up your story with statistics. Don’t let your application be ALL story, because then it sounds mushy and unsubstantiated; but don’t let it be ALL numbers because that is boring and doesn’t speak to the soul.
3. Give us some meat around the evaluation. Evaluation is the weakest part of basically every grant application I’ve ever read. Don’t just tell us you are going to survey your audience members. Really, we won’t believe you anyway. But if you tell us what you will ask them, why it’s important, and what you’ll do with that information, we’ll at least think your intention is sincere. If you can, include an example of your survey. If your project involves kids, find ways to get feedback from them. That stuff is always juicy.
4. If the grant requires you to reach underserved audiences, make darn sure your project actually does that. Hosting a project in, say, a rural community isn’t enough. How will you target those audiences? What about your project will be compelling for them? How will you ensure they have access? Why do you think they’ll care about what you are providing? Which brings me to…
5. There is no “if you build it, they will come” in the arts world. If your grant application is about community engagement, you need to demonstrate how you will actively engage the community and get their butts in your seats. You can describe this (traditional media, social media, etc.) but we also need to see a line item in your budget that matches the scope of what you want to accomplish. And what non-traditional means will you use to reach non-traditional audiences? And audiences that speak languages other than English? Don’t make us guess.
6. TYPOS MATTER. GRAMMAR MATTERS. If your project is super compelling, but there are mistakes in your application, it leads us to believe that you didn’t think the application was really worth your time, or that you don’t have pride in your work or lack attention to detail. Have three other sets of eyes read your application before you submit it, checking it for typos and grammatical mistakes. Oh – and – make sure the font is the same throughout, or we’ll be able to tell where you copied and pasted information from other grants. We all do that, but it’s a dirty little secret that should be kept secret.
7. Make sure your application is consistent. Many applications ask for basic information on the first page that you’ll repeat elsewhere, such as the name of your project, your request, and the budget. Make sure that the information you put on the first pages match what is in your narrative and budget pages. Really. Check it again. Right now.
8. Keep your budget detailed. I don’t need to know what you are spending on paper cups, but give me enough information in the budget that I can see that you know what you are doing. If it’s a festival, break out, say, rental costs, artist fees, publicity, insurance, etc. You’ve usually got at least 10 lines – use them, so I know you’ve done this before and have a true sense of what it takes. As opposed to just listing “festival costs” with a lump number.
9. Give us work samples that mean something. Pictures of performers are nice and all, and can convey some artistic excellence if they depict great costumes or sets, or the beautiful lines of a ballet dancer. But for the most part, a picture of a performance does nothing for my soul. If you are applying for a performing arts project, GIVE US VIDEO. Even if it’s from your iPhone. We cannot truly determine the artistry of a performance without experiencing it. Oh, and? If the guidelines say to identify work samples with track numbers and timing, identify your work samples with track numbers and timing. OK?
10. Make the application easy to read. For each narrative section, identify what you will cover by repeating an abbreviated version of the question. Don’t make us guess what you are supposed to be telling us. We’ve read thirteen other applications already that day and our brains are squeezing out of our ears. And don’t repeat narrative tidbits, even if you think what you said before was awesome – we got it the first time. Don’t pack every page with text – keep enough white space that we tired panelists can stand to look at your narrative. And DO NOT EXCEED WORD OR PAGE COUNTS. Your extra bits will just be cut out.
11. Assume your readers are smart and savvy but not knowledgeable about your project and region. Don’t insult your readers by padding your application with too much unsubstantiated touchy-feely stuff. Don’t think we won’t notice if you try to shoehorn your boot-shaped project into our glass slipper. Do give us clear, concise, and compelling information about your organization, why you are unique and fantastic, and why your community so clearly needs your project.
Here’s the thing: I’m not immune to some of the above. I intend to go back to this list whenever I submit a grant, because I’ll forget some of these recommendations; I’ll try to do some shoehorning or tap-dancing when I see a great funding opportunity. But let’s remember: when we do this, we waste our time, the foundation’s time, and the panelists’ time. Add those hours together, and think about what could have been accomplished, by all of us, with all of that precious time.