I just got back from a few days of serving on the grant review panel for the Wisconsin Arts Board. This is always an invigorating exercise – not only am I jazzed (no pun intended) to hear and see the wonderful art being made around our state, I really enjoy talking with other panel members and hearing what is important to them. I always learn something, and I always hope I contribute as much as I get in return.
At the same time, reading and discussing a few dozen grant applications always brings out the face-palming part of me that wonders why, with so much good information out there about how to write grants and technical assistance available at the Arts Board, so many organizations shoot themselves in the foot with poorly prepared applications or stupid mistakes. So here are a few thoughts from the front.
1. Don’t tell us how wonderful you are, show us.
At least 25% of the applications I looked at described themselves as the “premier” [choral group] [youth choir] [symphony] [community band] [jazz festival] in [the tri-county area] [central Wisconsin] [“our area”]. One organization said it was (changing some words slightly to protect the guilty) “the premier volunteer adult choir in the greater (small city) area not affiliated with an educational institution, church or larger institution.” You gotta wonder what the competition was for that distinction.
We also listened to the work sample of a group who took pains to remind us to listen for their (again, not direct quote) crystal clear cutoffs, soaring crescendoes, luminescent harmonies and incredible balance.
When panels judge grant applications, they look for objective evidence of an organization’s claims in order to compare them to other similar applications. Saying that you are the “premier” anything means absolutely nothing unless you were granted that distinction via an award, and actually may hurt you if the panel feels that you are engaging in hyperbole rather than being honest.
I always tell my students, show me, don’t tell me. On a resume, don’t say you are an organized person. Tell me about a time when your organizational skills helped you accomplish a goal or pull off a difficult task. Likewise, in a grant application, telling us what you do and what difference it made in your community gives us far more information than calling yourself names. It may even be possible – and desirable – to try and avoid descriptive adjectives completely in a grant application unless you are quoting from someone else.
Then again, there was the group that said they were “tied for runner-up” in their category of their paper’s “Best of” awards. Gotta admire that.
2. Consider your work sample carefully.
Like most government arts grants, the Wisconsin Arts Board asks for work samples. I was amazed by how many applications in the music category (which was the panel on which I was participating) included no audio or video examples of their work. Photos tell us nothing – and in fact photos may do more harm than good since they can easily be staged to show us (for example) more diversity or a larger audience than is normal for your organization. The best applications we saw had prepared a short audio or video clip with tightly edited samples of a variety of musical styles and concert situations. These days, it’s not all that hard to edit a video using software included on a standard computer. Use it.
Also, when choosing work samples, think about what your work is showing us. If you give us just one sample, make it indicative not only of the best singing/playing you can do, but the programming you’re most proud of. The samples we loved the best showed off commissioned works, collaborations with other organizations, and features that made your organization unique. It should go without saying that you be authentic. The boy choir whose sample does not include unchanged voices or the youth symphony that only shows soloists does not give a good measure of what you do.
3. Does your group have fun? Don’t be afraid to show it! (and if they don’t, why not?)
In a famous quote from the movie Amadeus, Mozart says, “Come on now, which one of you wouldn’t rather listen to your hairdresser than Hercules? Or Horatio or Orpheus…people so lofty they sound as though they shit marble!” Profanity notwithstanding, I always think of this quote when reading grant applications that are trying their hardest to make their work sound incredibly serious. In fact, some of our highest ratings were given to a group that described their work as “what Bach might have done if he were more fun and less dead,” a small community group that said they attracted a number of professionals who liked to play with them because it was fun and not competitive, and a summer camp with a glorious video of teenagers joyfully drumming on an old car.
That’s enough for now. I may do a few more if I can get my act together in between grading papers, getting ready for Thanksgiving and the end of the semester, and furiously knitting holiday gifts.