Why Funding Applications are like the Leaving Cert
How to Approach Funding Applications
Why Funding Applications are like the Leaving Cert (and why they’re not)
For most artists and arts workers, funding applications can be some level of dreaded, a bit overwhelming, and often inevitable. They often remind me of state exams like the Leaving Cert, which most of us also dreaded, but in the end survived. Like an exam, there are a few ways to approach these applications that can make them more manageable and easier to reckon with, which are outlined below. In Ireland, you might be tackling a variety of different ‘papers’ - local authority funding, Arts Council funding, department funding - but these ways to approach should apply across the board.
There are also some all-important reasons why funding applications are NOT like a school exam which might help to keep in mind.
Why Funding Applications are like the Leaving Cert
1. Answer the Question
- As many teachers will say over and over again on any exam paper ‘Make sure you read the question’.
- Like an exam, you often won’t get any benefit if an answer diverges from the point of the question.
- Absolute clarity is better than subtlety for applications. If the question is ‘How will this project benefit the local community?’, the answer can be ‘This project will benefit the local community in AREA in the following ways: Bullet point, bullet point, bullet point.’ Style of writing is less important than answering the questions and meeting the criteria.
- It is very easy as artists for us to start discussing the details of a project that mean the most to us, or the things that are most important to us, but do always check if this is answering the question that has been asked. There is usually an overall ‘Describe your project’ question which is a better place for giving an overview. If you feel that the questions haven’t given you enough opportunity to explore some aspect of your project, you can also often include supporting documentation which goes into further detail.
- Summaries are particularly important. A short summary is often included at the top of an application - this needs if possible in very few words to show that your project will have impact, and that it fits the criteria as well as what it is.
- A useful trick is to pull keywords out of the question and criteria, and drop them at the top of the body of your answer when you are drafting. You can then check whether you have addressed or included all the keywords.
2. Know the dates
- Just as you wouldn’t want to turn up on the wrong day for your Applied Maths exam and find that everyone there is sitting a paper for Russian - there is nothing worse than realising that you’ve missed a deadline for a funding round that you had a good project for.
- Google Calendar can be a useful tool here, and it can be helpful when dropping in a deadline to use the reminder function to send emails to yourself at set intervals before-hand - maybe 4 weeks beforehand to get your ideas and external input in order, and 2 weeks beforehand to finish the written application.
- In terms of keeping up-to-date with the various applications that are coming up:
- Improvised Music Company’s Musician Newsletter will usually have a round-up of upcoming funding applications straight into your inbox.
- Music Network’s Industry Newsletter is also a good reference point.
- The Journal of Music’s Job & Opportunity listings are usually quite comprehensive.
- The Arts Council have an overview of the year’s funding available here.
- It’s also worth bookmarking your local authority arts office’s website.
3. There is a marking scheme
- Virtually all funding schemes have criteria attached, outlining what the scheme is aiming to do. Every point of your application should try and illustrate why you meet the criteria. Like a basic comprehension exercise in an exam, it’s worth parroting back the criteria - ‘This project will meet this criterion because…’ No subtlety required.Funding bodies usually have their key strategies available, such as the Arts Council’s ‘Making Great Art Work’, or e.g. Cork City Council’s Arts & Culture Strategy. If you can skim these and find keywords which are repeated, these are also good to include in your reasoning for your project, outlining how it fits into the overall goals.
- It’s useful to remember where the funding bodies are coming from in this instance. In general, they will have to make the same case for their funding to a higher authority as you do to them. If the applications they have coming in clearly meet the criteria that have been outlined as important, and show the benefit to the wider world of the work that is being done, it’s much easier for them to make a case for their overall funding.
- There tend also to be overarching criteria in terms of the feasibility of the project and its impact. Funding bodies will need to be supporting projects that can successfully go ahead in order to justify their funding, so everything that indicates that you have considered every step of the work and have the resources planned to deal with it will be useful.
- The impact of the project is also a consideration - funding bodies as a whole need to justify their use of taxpayer’s money by showing in hard figures how many people art has impacted, or by showing how deeply people have been impacted. Including a free element, digital element, or outreach element to a project can be a way to hit greater numbers in terms of impact, without affecting things like ticket sales.
4. Start with the Paper
- The first and foremost point when working with any application is to make sure that you are eligible before you start the work. Read the Eligibility and guidelines at least a few times to make sure that you and your project are eligible.
- Relating to ‘Answer the Question’, it’s also a much better idea to look over the whole paper and all questions before starting in on answering them. Some questions can seem repetitive but have different lenses or different criteria in mind. When you are restricted for words or characters, you may find that you only need to address certain aspects of your project in one question, and can save other aspects for another question. Splitting things out like this, depending on the question, can allow you more words to give details about how your project will work and fit the criteria, rather than repeating yourself.
5. Re-use where you can
- When writing an exam essay, you most likely didn’t start purely from scratch - you used points, whole paragraphs or tweaked paragraphs from essays that you had written before. Similarly, not every word of a funding application needs to be written exactly for this particular one. See what you can reuse from previous applications or other copy that you have ready.
- Outlines of the Marketing of a project, its documentation and evaluation, or your track record as an artist are often very reusable from project to project.
- Save everything, in case it can be re-used again, either in a future application or in reporting on this one. Google Drive or other similar platforms are useful for this. If everything relating to a project, including your draft application form, budget, and supporting documentation is in one folder, it will be much easier for you when reporting if successful, or equally will be easy to copy and paste some items from for the next application.
6. Don't forget the 'outside' work
- In a Leaving Cert history exam, you could theoretically get a 100% and still end up with an overall mark of a B. Project work accounts for 20%, or more in some subjects. Similarly, in a funding application, the form itself is usually not 100% of the work. There may be supporting documentation required in the form of detailed budgets, letters of support, and samples of work.
- Similarly to the Leaving Cert, these are often the things that need to be pinned down long before the actual form is tackled. While you can often work on an application form quite close to the deadline, it will be impossible to get a Letter of Support from a partner without giving them a good amount of notice.
- Regarding budgets, being as detailed and clear as possible will give you points towards the perceived ‘feasibility’ of the project. If you lay out, for example, artist fees in terms of the rate per hour/day, amount of time worked, and artists involved, it shows consideration. The Note function in excel, Numbers or Google Sheets is useful here, or adding in a Notes column.
- If there are items that you are not directly spending money on but which are contributing to the project, most funding bodies will allow you to consider Benefit-in-Kind in a budget. E.g. If a partner venue is providing public liability insurance, you can add an item on the Expenditure and Income sides of the budget, which is for Public Liability Insurance (Benefit-in-Kind). This can be a way of balancing a budget so that the funding body is not providing ALL the income, and also a way of indicating that you haven’t simply forgotten some items of expenditure (which could be a mark against feasibility.
- If the budget exists both in the form and as an external detailed document, keep track of how they relate. The form version of a budget is often very general, with overarching categories like ‘Artistic Costs’, ‘Marketing’, etc. Check the criteria for what costs fit into what category - e.g. the Arts Council considers a sound engineer’s fees as an artist fee, since they are directly involved in the creation of the art work. A graphic designer’s fees for a poster would usually be considered ‘Marketing’, whereas for an album cover, they might be considered ‘artist fees’. Have a column in your personal version of the budget to keep track of what was assigned where so that you can reconcile your final report budget with the application form - in general, reports should aim to match the form as closely as they can, although some changes are inevitable.
7. Answer the Question
- Re-read your answers again after finishing the form, and check whether they are still answering the question.
- It can be difficult to read an application form in depth after working on it for a period of time, as your brain will tend to skim it as familiar material. It can be useful to print the form and go over it with a pen, or to change the font to something very different - 14 point Comic Sans say, to slow your reading and allow you to spot any oddities.
- This is also the time to make sure that there are no unfinished sentences, incomprehensible sentences, typos etc. There are almost inevitably some unfinished thoughts in the length of an application form. Shortening long sentences can make them easier to read for a funding authority - clarity over style.
And Why They're Not
1. The art is the important thing
- Your artwork in the end is the most important thing. Fitting it into a set of criteria doesn’t mean you need to fundamentally change your vision, it just means you need to highlight certain aspects for the purposes of an application, and then make art as it makes sense to you.
- A rejected application has nothing to do with the quality of your art. Successful applications are usually due to a good amount of money in a particular pot. Some excellent applications inevitably won’t be successful because competition is high in a particular year or money is lower in a particular area. This changes nothing about your art work, but continuing to put in funding applications keeps the possibility open that your project will land when the circumstances are right.
2. You can ask for help
- Someone else’s perspective on a project and an application is absolutely invaluable, and you can have as many people as you like look at an application before you submit it. Someone else’s eyes will absolutely see the typos or nonsensical sentences that are very difficult to spot after a while in an application document.
- If you can’t see how your project possibly fits into certain criteria, an external perspective can be particularly useful. Someone else might be much better equipped to see that it could be explained as fitting another criteria, or could be tweaked slightly to fit better.
- Working in Google Docs is a useful tool here, as you can email anyone a link to your draft, and get their input back using the Comment function, or the ‘Suggest’ function. Google Docs will also save earlier versions, so even if something is changed by a collaborator that you prefer to leave as it was, you can find the earlier version and revert it.
- If you’re unsure of who to ask for help, know that most artists who have ever done a funding application will be happy to help someone with theirs. Resource organisations can also be a point of contact. Funding bodies themselves may not offer direct feedback on particular applications (although occasionally they do), but they will often run clinics, or have email addresses available. If you have any questions regarding the particular scheme, these are a good place to go.
- IMC’s Cooler Clinics run monthly in-person and online, and we are available to offer any advice we can on any career concerns, including applications.
3. You can try again
- Unlike the Leaving Cert, funding applications roll around again and again. If a project wasn’t successful in a particular scheme in a particular year, it might be in another year or another scheme. All of the material you have developed for any application is a resource for the next application.
- Applications are often a steady area of work for most artists, so it is worth setting aside some times to make them part of your practice. The success or not of any application has no relation to the next one, and you can continue to try until something fits your project, or perhaps see a project develop into something different that may be successful down the line.