Louise Arkles, Arts Program Manager at The Ian Potter Foundation, shares her experience of what matters and what counts in grants decision making.

One of the things we get asked about a lot is grant writing. Should we really spend the time on applications when it feels like a lucky dip? Should we just outsource our grants work and invest in other forms of philanthropy? Where can we find someone who can write in grant-speak? If we just submit enough applications surely our luck will change? Our projects will never be self-sustaining – that’s the arts – so how do we deal with that?

We love these questions because it has become apparent over the last few years that grant making in general is changing – and these positive changes are reshaping the landscape for the arts sector.

To understand the approach of one of the great Australian foundations, we spoke to Louise Arkles, Program Manager – Arts and Environment at The Ian Potter Foundation, an organisation that has written over $273 million in grants (and so many to the arts) since 1964.

Throughout her career, Louise has worked with individual donors as well as foundations and has seen the impact that is achieved through genuine collaboration between donors and do-ers.

Out of the ivory tower

Foundations are increasingly engaging in collaborative dialogue and opening their doors to the organisations they fund. The Ian Potter Foundation is looking to build genuine partnerships through face-to-face engagement and visits to see projects in action. The Foundation’s Governors and program management team are purposefully increasing transparency around process and general approachability. Unlike times gone by, it is much easier to speak with a grant maker, talk through a project and seek their advice. Considerable effort is going into changing perceptions that foundations are cloistered, impenetrable but mysteriously benevolent institutions.

Responding to a sector in need

Since taking on the Ian Potter arts portfolio two years ago, Louise has witnessed a turbulent period for arts funding and it continues to bite.

“I see a lot of stress and disillusionment in the sector,” she says. “There are genuine issues of sustainability and everyone is striving to mitigate the risk in piecemeal funding models.”

But if you feel beleaguered or that your organisation is too small or too niche to succeed in this environment, Louise says there is cause to think again:

“Although The Ian Potter Foundation is moving towards fewer, larger and more transformational grants, the Arts portfolio welcomes applications for a range of amounts over multiple years”.

With that in mind, we asked Louise what she wished every grant applicant knew. Here are her 10 things that might make the difference and help secure support for your next important project.

10 insights for grant writers

1. Funds are awarded to good projects, not good applications

The best applications are the ones that come from the heart. They’re not necessarily the most perfect or beautifully written but they’re usually put together by the organisation themselves. They also present an opportunity or solution to an honest problem and demonstrate widespread benefits. If there are potential ripple effects across an artform or a geographical area, even better.

“We look for projects that shine through as something really exciting, strategic, valid, urgent and important,” Louise says.

2. Evidence should always come first. But don’t hide your passion

Applying for a grant is different to communicating about a major gift or annual appeal. “We need specific details – not motherhood statements,” Louise says. “For example, if you write ‘research shows …’ you need to specify what research, by which institution and when.”

That said, Louise points out that the applications that stand out always demonstrate a passion, honesty and urgency that goes beyond the numbers. She also argues that it pays to be yourself and to be succinct. You don’t need strings of adjectives to convey your passion

3. Address your organisation’s biggest need or most urgent challenge.

Louise says she sometimes gets the impression that organisations try to develop a project based on what they think a foundation will like or what they’ve funded before.

“When I think this is the case, I’ll ask them ‘if you had $50K of untied funds – what would be the most important thing you could achieve with that? Generally, the answer I get is the project I recommend putting forward in the funding application.” 

4. Think through the full solution

We’ve written previously about why arts organisations need to stop thinking small.  This is definitely the case when it comes to grants.

Louise says that grant applicants need to be able to consider a problem or opportunity in its entirety: even if that requires a lot of money. If this is the case, there may be ways to stagger the funding or spread it across multiple investors. You can’t do this however, if there isn’t strategic planning around a full solution that meets the criteria for success.

“Often arts organisations will try to be as modest and unassuming as possible whereas what they really need to do is make the case for what is genuinely needed,” Louise says.

5. Do include administrative costs – but spell them out

Make sure your project budget reflects the true cost of providing that service or intervention, including staff time, travel, tools and project monitoring and evaluation. These components can – and should – be built into the budget.

“Like any business, not-for-profits need to run well and meet their legal and ethical obligations. What we don’t like to see is where organisations load overhead into the grant, without detail or where it is not warranted,” Louise says.

6. Never ask a funder to carry the can for the entire project cost

Funders appreciate that arts organisations are operating under a subsidised business model. But that doesn’t mean they will wear all the risk for your project.

“When we ask about the support you’ve secured for the project, we are looking to see what other relationships and financial stakeholders you have to help ensure your project is a success,” Louise explains. “We never like to be the only financial stakeholder apart from the organisation itself.” 

This doesn’t mean all the money must be pledged or received at the time of writing your grant. But it does mean you need to show a considered funding plan and a sincere commitment to following it through.

7. If your project is ongoing, have a plan for what happens after the grant

This is an extension of point 6. Show your commitment to continuity by articulating how you will stimulate earned revenue growth and develop other sources of private sector support while you have the security of funding in place. Louise argues that this can make a lot of difference in proving that you’ll leverage the grant investment to multiply income for your organisation and contribute to its sustainability.

8. Don’t stress if your project isn’t going to plan, but do communicate openly

Grantees often feel locked into a rigid timeline to hit the performance measures in grant agreements. But Louise says that you should always remember that the grant maker is more interested in your organisation’s success and viability than they are in a calendar deadline.

“We need grant recipients to know that they’re welcome to call us anytime to report problems or issues,” she explains. “We will do as much as we can to be flexible and assist.”

9. If you were unsuccessful it isn’t because your project wasn’t good

Louise says there are always hidden variables in the decision-making process, many of which are beyond the applicant’s control. Often these involve ensuring an equitable distribution of funds across art forms and geographies.

“If you were unsuccessful and you know what you’re doing is good, persevere with it. It may have been just a matter of timing. Although you can’t reapply to us with that project, please don’t give up.”

10. Grant makers are passionate about what you do too

Finally, Louise explains that although grant makers may be working on the other side of the table, you should never lose sight of the fact that they’re people too and that many care deeply about the work you do. Their job is to help you do it to the best of your ability.

“I really love working in philanthropy, even though it’s not on the front line,” Louise says. “We work behind the scenes and are lucky enough to be able to contribute financially and in other ways. Helping enable some of the great things that happens in society is really meaningful work.

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