Small Museum Grant Writing: A Different (and Less Bitter) Approach

It’s grant season, so I’m again going to address all you desperate people out there. You know who you are. You’ve been suckered into writing an “easy” grant for a museum that can’t afford a professional grant writer: You’re the only one in the office who can string together a coherent written sentence, so guess who’s on deck?

I’ve been grant writing (non-professionally, trust me!) for about four years now for a small museum. I’ve written in the past about what I’ve learned the hard way (see this and this). I’ve now been mentored by a much more experienced grant writer and gotten a few hard knocks–and one funded proposal two funded proposals!

I’ve learned how to think about grants a different way, which has helped me overcome some of my previous bitterness.

So, here’s my latest advice:

1.) THE MONEY ISN’T THE POINT. Seriously. Getting a check in the mail or at some pompous awards ceremony is a plus, but this isn’t about a quick buck. This is about RELATIONSHIPS.

Are you taking notes? Write this down: RELATIONSHIPS.

Unless you know someone at the grant organization, you’ll probably be turned down the first time you apply. This is normal. Do not be discouraged by it. Remember, these people don’t know you, and they probably do know most of the applicants–as I’ve said before, most of these organizations, especially private foundations, are an old boys (and girls) club. Put together a kick-ass proposal, even if you think it probably won’t be funded. These people talk to each other, and a strong application (even one that won’t be funded for whatever reason) puts a bug into the ears of the rich people. Make no mistake, they will be checking out your museum, maybe for the first time.

This is a good thing! It’s the beginning of the relationship between you and the funder. When you aren’t funded, call/email and ask why. If they say “we can’t release that information” (and they might), don’t take it personally. Say “thanks for taking the time to talk to me.”

Then do this:

2.) NETWORK PEOPLE, NETWORK! Or have your resident networker do it. That person who’s supposed to be your “marketing” person? Get their butts off Facebook and send them out to conferences, seminars, community galas, and dinners. Have them get onto the board of another organization. This must be someone willing to rub elbows, wine and dine, learn about people’s families and zodiac signs. You know those emails your local arts council or volunteering service sends you about dumb professional development and community arts seminars? Go to those. Seriously. Cough up the sixty buck admission fee and send someone social. There will be important people there. Meet them.

THE HUGE MAJORITY OF SMALL GRANTS ARE AWARDED ON A WINK-AND-NOD BASIS. ORGANIZATIONS WILL NEVER ADMIT TO THIS. It’s not because they’re bad people. They’re just rich people (who, despite the opinion of the self-proclaimed 99%, are mostly pleasant individuals).

So why the secret handshake? The reason is oversight. This is something I’ve learned to think about differently. In the post-Enron, post-Recession world, these funders are under intense scrutiny by the IRS, their local governments, and even other non-profit watchdogs. They’re doing what you do in your job every day: Covering their asses. When they give to someone they know and trust, there’s less chance of a problem. And that means less of a chance of an uncomfortable court case for them.

So, you need to get to know these people. Preferably informally.

If you can’t do that, then at least do this:

3.) SCHEDULE A MEETING WITH THEM. Some organizations (sometimes very rudely!) refuse to do this. Others welcome it and even encourage it. If they encourage it (and they’ll say so on their website or in their application), for God’s sake, do it! Well before any kind of deadline.

Remember: THE MONEY ISN’T THE POINT. A relationship with these people will bring you more than just a check. It will get you publicity in the rich-folk community, and thus, through trickle-down, in the general community. Set up a meeting. Present your plan for the next five years (yes, you need to have that). Talk about your goals, your mission, your needs. And, importantly, this:

4.) LET THEM KNOW THAT SUPPORTING YOUR MISSION WILL HELP THEM FULFILL THEIRS. Think about your organization’s mission. You want to do things that fit that mission, right? Well, most of these funders are also non-profits, or at least the non-profit wing of a corporation. They also have a mission statement. And they have to prove, probably more legally than you do, that they’re fulfilling it.

In your networking/meeting, don’t just talk about you. This isn’t Christmas, and funders aren’t Santa Claus. THIS IS A RELATIONSHIP. Ask them about their mission: What are your priorities right now? What do you see as the biggest problems in the community? How are you fulfilling your mission right now? What kinds of programs do you think are the most valuable to the community? Let them talk. Then tell them how you can help THEM fulfill THEIR mission. This is something the veteran grant writer taught me, and it’s very good advice.

As they say, “money talks, bullshit walks.” If you want a business to do anything, explain how you’ll help their bottom line; for a grant organization, explain how you’ll help them fulfill their mission.

And remember:

5.) THEY WON’T GIVE YOU THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS RIGHT AWAY (USUALLY). They’ll start small. Anyone can talk, after all–they want to see you in action. Make that $500 they give you the best damn $500 you ever spent. Work harder on that even than you do a $10,000 one you’re funding yourself. Get the report done correctly and on time. THIS IS ABOUT THE LONG TERM. If you do well, they’ll give you more next year. You’ll work your way up. You have to be patient. And it will pay off in way more than money in the end.

IT’S NOT ABOUT THE MONEY! IT’S RELATIONSHIPS! And it doesn’t happen overnight, however much the cash-strapped board wants it to.

Hold your ground. This is an important part of the organization’s future. And don’t get discouraged about rejection.

That funded proposal I wrote? (Over ten grand!!!). It came from a local organization whose director we cultivated a long-term relationship with over the course of two years. That relationship started when WE helped THEM with a major event. Take that story as the lesson of this post.


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