Q&A: Tips for Winning Grants
April 02, 2010
PDN: Has OSI seen an increase in competition for grants?
Yukiko Yamagata: Yes. Inquiries are up, and we expect applications to increase even more. The collapse of the [publishing] industry has put pressure on photographers to find other sources of funding. People are coming to us for grants for the first time in their careers, and some of them are pretty well established.
PDN: Overall, what separates the successful and unsuccessful grant applications?
Y.Y.: Those that don't succeed are often from applicants who haven't [made] sure the grant is a good fit. We eliminate a third of the applications that we receive in the first cut because they fall outside the grant guidelines.
It's really important to get a sense of what types of projects a foundation is interested in funding, and whether your project is a good match. Study the description of the grant, and visit the grant organization's Web site to get a sense of their areas of focus. I also encourage people to try contacting the program officer working on the grant to have a conversation just to see if your project fits.
PDN: Are grants more often rejected because they're bad ideas, or because they're presented badly?
Y.Y.: It's a little bit of both. In terms of presentation, sometimes applicants will make grandiose statements about their work or what it will achieve in an attempt to make a project seem more significant than it really is. We want projects that have contemporary significance and appeal to wider audiences, but we want applicants to explain in detail how a project does something different from what other people are proposing. In terms of bad ideas, we do get a little bit of that.
PDN: Can you give any examples of a grandiose proposal versus a well-articulated one?
Y.Y.: People sometimes say they'll change the public perception of a particular issue, without specifying the audience they're talking about, or how they want perceptions to change. We recently awarded a Distribution Grant to Lori Waselchuk for her project about hospice care at [the Louisiana State Penitentiary at] Angola. She proposed an exhibit to influence prison administrators at other prisons [to establish hospice programs of their own]. She had a clearly stated goal, a specific audience that was going to help her achieve that goal, and specific venues in mind.
PDN: To a lot of photographers, applying for a grant for the first time may seem daunting. What's the first step or two to success?
Y.Y.: Do as much research as you can on the grants that are out there to find those that fit your project. We have a Facebook page called Photo Grant Opportunities, where we invite photographers to post information about grants. The Foundation Center in New York has a library where you can research grant opportunities on a database, based on variables such as your topic, your medium, and your location. The second step is to [study] the application requirements, which seems obvious, but you would be surprised at how many applications we receive that are incomplete or don't follow directions.
PDN: Grant writing experts often say that. Why is that such a common problem?
Y.Y.: People often wait until the last minute to apply, so things that take time�such as letters of recommendation�are often neglected.
PDN: Speaking of that, what advice do you have about letters of recommendation?
Y.Y.: Letters of recommendation should come from people who know your work well and can talk about your unique strengths, not only in terms of your photography, but also in terms of your ability to research and execute a project in a thorough and timely manner. Give your references plenty of time to complete the letter, and make it as easy as possible for them by sending them a copy of the grant guidelines, providing talking points, and a stamped, addressed envelope (if hard copies are required). The letter of recommendation is an opportunity for your references to talk about any accomplishments, skills, or strengths that may not be immediately apparent in your proposal, CV, or work samples. Ask your references to mention specific examples that demonstrate what makes you a unique and strong candidate; it's best to avoid overly generalized statements.
PDN: What are some of the guiding principles for writing a grant proposal?
Y.Y.: Be very clear and concise and avoid any jargon. Some people try to fill it with a lot of theory and very abstract thinking. You want to avoid that. I encourage people to vet their proposals with readers who may not know anything about photography, or even the issue that the photographer is documenting, just to make sure the proposal is clear. I would also say that the first paragraph [of the proposal] is key.
PDN: What should that first paragraph accomplish?
Y.Y.: It should be a condensed summary of what the project is about and goals that you're trying to achieve. It's important to put that in the beginning because the first round of [elimination] happens quickly. You really want to convey what your project is about in that first paragraph so it's easier for a reader to get a sense of your project right away.
PDN: What about the writing style? How do you sound passionate and professional at the same time?
Y.Y.: It's always nice to get a sense of the personality of the photographer, why they have a personal interest in an issue, and how they came to a project. So it's good to have those details included, but you want them in a clean, professional-sounding language.
PDN: How do you convince grant givers that you can execute your proposal?
Y.Y.: Again, by doing really good research about what's involved, including any potential obstacles and how you plan to address those challenges. If you're doing new work, you would need to say who your contacts might be, and what organizations you plan to reach out to in order to help you with access and provide context for your work. In your work samples, rather than show breadth, I prefer to see a track record for long-term documentary work, and evidence that you can convey issues with depth and subtlety.
PDN: How essential is a budget in a grant proposal, and what are some dos and don'ts of that?
Y.Y.: Most [grant organizations] tell you whether they require it or not. But even if they don't ask, include it to show you have a clear understanding of what the project entails. The clarity of your budget is a way to assess how likely it is that you are able to complete something. Keep in mind that it's pretty obvious to grant makers when people pad their budgets. You want to come up with the numbers in an honest, well-researched way. Create clear categories for the budget, and present it in Excel [a spreadsheet], rather than doing a narrative budget.
PDN: What do you do if you're rejected? Can you call or write and ask why, and re-apply at a later date?
Y.Y.: Unless the guidelines say you can't apply a second time, I encourage photographers to apply multiple times for the same grant. Sometimes we turn down applications because we've recently funded a similar project. So rejection may have nothing to do with the strength of a proposal. It's often about balancing out what a grant maker wants to fund. Be sure to update and change your application so it reflects the current state of the project. We don't want to see applications where it seems that there's no progress from one year to the next. We want to see that even if you don't find funding you are still committed and resourceful enough to make it happen. And yes, some grant givers keep their evaluations confidential, but it's fine to call a grant officer and ask for feedback. Give them a few weeks after you are notified, so they have a little room to breathe. When you call, remind them what your project is about. They've probably read hundreds of proposals and may not remember yours, but that doesn't mean they haven't fully considered it.
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