The Grant-Giver’s Guide to Getting

Never enough to go around
Never enough to go around

If you think applying for grant money is difficult, you should try giving it away. It’s very easy to do badly, very challenging and time-consuming to do conscientiously. But having prepared a host of grant applications on a contract basis for various arts organizations, I still found it a very welcome and educational change to be sitting on the other side of the table in January this year as a member of the National Review Committee for the Canadian El Sistema granting program. This initiative, funded by the McConnell Foundation and coordinated by the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, was a particularly bold stroke aimed primarily at supporting the creation of new programs and the formal evaluation of more established ones.

Disclaimer: the views expressed herein are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of the National Review Committee, the NAC or the McConnell Foundation.

Solely in terms of applications received, the program was a success, inspiring about twice as many individuals and organizations to submit tenders than was previously anticipated. The good news was that there’s much more interest in Sistema than we thought. The bad news is that we couldn’t fund it all. So very difficult decisions had to be made, some based on programs that only exist conceptually.

Although the specifics of those discussions undertaken remain confidential, I can offer some very general suggestions based on the experience.

  1. Follow the guidelines

    The first criteria against which any application is adjudicated is simply whether it meets the published granting program guidelines. A grant application has zero chance of success if mismatched to the stated aims of the grant. Make sure your program qualifies for the grant before investing the time and effort required in applying.
  2. Show clarity of purpose – have an objective

    In making a decision about funding, panels want to know exactly what the prospective recipient intends to accomplish with the money and why. This is a fundamental element of their responsibility, and the more clearly the plan of action is outlined, the easier the decision is. Make the decision easy. Outcomes don’t have to be sophisticated, complex, or even plural. An end result of x more children receiving y more hours of musical instruction every day might be sufficient as a measurable starting point.
  3. Research carefully

    Much of the “conventional wisdom” concerning el Sistema is more sales-driven media hyperbole than fact. Yes, in very specific terms of Sistema there’s a research gap, but there’s still a vast amount of knowledge and documentation for music education in general. A plan of action has only as much credibility as the research behind it. And for those cases where no research exists, it’s not just acceptable, but reassuring when programs acknowledge gaps in the knowledge and demonstrate a process for attempting to close them.

    As an addendum to this thought, it shouldn’t be necessary to speculate or generalize about the needs of the population to be served, as there are numerous excellent free resources available online for profiling communities in detail.

    Oh, and spell “Sistema” correctly. Seriously. No, seriously.

  4. Understand how seriously granters take their responsibility

    The purpose of the application process is to attempt to render all submissions into a format with a reasonable baseline, but perfect comparison remains an impossibility. Inevitably there are countless variables that panels must interpret in the spirit of the intentions of the funding source. Rejection, if forthcoming, should never be taken personally nor as a reflection of the general merits of the proposed project. I can state with confidence that the National Review Committee took its work extremely seriously and conscientiously, and that unfavourable decisions were often made with regret.

I’m reminded of some words of wisdom I once heard: “Competitions never reveal who the best are, they just identify the best at winning competitions.” Like democracy, the granting competition process is another example of a system that is the worst of all possible, except all those that have already been tried. The uncommon wisdom of the McConnell Foundation process is that it recognized the possibility of risk and the need for flexibility as precursors to the development of a more refined theory of action, and the establishment of more concrete metrics for future evaluation. The Foundation has embraced the possibility of failure – and that’s precisely how it will be able to identify success.





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