I don’t know about you, but the thought of writing a grant proposal, especially to fund my own work, makes my stomach knot. My first thoughts are of my inadequacies: I haven’t done enough, accomplished enough, won enough awards, or even been creative enough. And yet, the most surprising thing I learned when I unexpectedly got a job in philanthropy was that we creative folk already possess all the skills we need to win grants.
My sojourn into the world of philanthropy occurred quite by accident more than 20 years ago. My spouse died of cancer, and I suddenly had to raise our 7-year-old son on nothing more than a freelance writer’s income. With my son’s security at stake, I sought a job, any job, and found myself taking a position at a $1 billion foundation. Through the next 13 years I learned far more than I ever imagined about how fundraising works. At times I felt like a spy—not many writers get to hobnob with millionaires and philanthropists. I learned how they think, and what they seek. After my son graduated and launched himself into life, I went back to freelance writing, only now I included grant writing in my toolbox.
Through all of this I learned that the skills of a great grant writer are the same as the skills that all creative folk, independent educators, and activists must acquire to succeed. To both create and sell our work we must:
- Be Thorough.
- Be Aware.
- Be Persistent.
You can’t create without being thorough. Learning and honing your craft requires an attention to detail that is every bit as exacting as an engineer’s. Creating an effective story, a novel, a poem, a workshop, or even a political campaign requires intensity. The same is true of writing a successful grant. You have to focus intently on what funders want, and you have to follow every one of their picky rules.
Awareness is also important for creative sorts and grant writers. To succeed as artists we must pay attention to our audience. We can’t reach the folks we want to reach unless we know who they are and how they perceive the world. The same is true in grant writing. You have to pay attention to your audience, which in this case is the foundation or governmental agency that is awarding the grant you want. Luckily, we creative sorts already have a well-honed knack for paying attention to our audience.
Even more important than thoroughness or awareness is persistence. There isn’t a single creative soul on this planet who has succeeded without being persistent. It takes persistence to learn our craft. It takes persistence to sell our work and make even a few dollars. Taking “no” for an answer is simply not an option in our line of work. The same is true in grant writing. If one funder rejects you, try another. If a funder turned you down for a particular grant, try again for the same grant program if the funder allows it, or apply for another kind of grant the funder offers. In grant writing as in creative work, the persistent succeed.
I am so thrilled to be teaching a grant writing class for the Transformative Language Arts Network. Funding Transformation: Grant Writing for Storytellers, Writers, Educators, and Activists begins February 21. Join us!