Lucky you!

I read an article in Arts Hub last week which shook me in my grant-making boots when I got to the final line – “There are certainly some ground rules, but if you think that getting a grant is not a lottery, I wish you luck”. The article, Heads or Tails? Getting that grant, was written by Tamara Winikoff (Executive Director of NAVA, the national peak body for the visual arts, craft and design sector). She writes regularly on the arts for Arts Hub and various other publications and, given her extensive knowledge and experience of the sector, she has an opinion which carries quite some weight. I think that’s why I was so surprised and disappointed when I read what she had to say.

Perhaps I’m an idealist, but I like to think that every funding decision I’ve ever helped a Board or Committee make has been a fair one, based on a set of known funding objectives and with a clear rationale. Will the project meet a clear need or demand? Is it viable? Is the organisation viable? Is project planning and management adequately well considered?

And no, it hasn’t been possible to support every good project – usually due to budgetary constraints – but in this instance the project that appears to offer most to its audience and the applicant organisation, and will deliver most strongly against my organisation’s funding objectives is the one that will be supported. And yes, funding rounds are hard work and can be draining, but the decision-making process is a multi-layered one where each recommendation is seen by more than one pair of eyes.

Before coming to Australia I worked as a Grants Officer for a UK lottery distributor. Part of my job was to review draft press announcements prepared by grantees about their newly awarded grants. I was forever having to edit out lines like “lucky lottery win for xxx!” and “what a stroke of lottery luck!” because it was considered that they gave the wrong idea: getting a grant wasn’t in any way about luck or lottery, it was about a lot of thought and hard work.  Every decision was a very robust one which had to be transparent and accountable to applicants and the lottery-ticket-buying-public because, after all, them buying the tickets was what enabled support for these projects to be considered in the first place.

I have to admit, reading Heads or Tails, I really got the sense that I was reading the words of someone who’d reached the end of their tether; jaded by a few really tough weeks at work. I could be wrong. If I am, perhaps I have to take solace from Tamara’s recognition that there are ground rules to grant-making and hope that others have faith that getting a grant is not a lottery.

I feel like I might have co-opted Caitriona’s high horse….


3 Comments on “Lucky you!”

  1. Caitriona Fay says:

    Agree completely with you Claire. It’s a discredit to grant seekers and grant makers alike to suggest that sourcing funds for programs is all about luck. But you are correct, good programs/projects miss out all the time and a lot of the time it comes down to prioritisation.

    If grant seeking is a game of odds, then you increase your chance of ‘winning’ exponentially by making sure you’re seeking funds from an appropriate partner, presenting a rational case for need and support, addressing the organisation’s criteria and presenting your request logically and in a way that makes sense to a diversity of people.

    There’s the old saying that the more you practice the luckier you get. I subscribe to that thinking. Persistence is important. It’s important not to throw in the towel when you are knocked back – there’s always a funder out there willing to back a good program. The challenge is in directing your organisations energy and resources at the right funders.

  2. No, it is not all luck.

    But I’ve worked with local, national, regional, and international foundations and can certainly say that luck plays a part in the game.

    Maybe your readers can help me count the ways….

    You got lucky when:

    1) Your organization’s name is near the top of the alphabet when the reviewers deliberate the applications in apha order. The budget evaporates as you go down the list and reviewers lose steam toward the end of the alphabet.

    2) You submit a grant at the beginning of a funder’s fiscal year when they are flush with cash or then end of the fiscal year if they need to make payout. Suddenly your mediocre request gets a green light.

    3) A grant reviewer has personal knowledge of your organization and effectively lobbies his/her colleagues.

    4) You get a more relaxed review committee that gives you the benefit of the doubt to lackluster writing and a few typos you overlooked in the rush to get the proposal out the door.

    5) When the donor does a site visit and meets you in person.

    6) Foundation staff was not rigid with the proposal deadline.

    7) You have such a good reputation (deserved or not) that you can write the most horrid and poorly developed proposals for projects and still get funding – much to the dismay of your hard working colleagues down the block who lack the marketing and fundraising horsepower.

  3. Thanks for your comment Prentice. Those are all good points. What they really raise though is the question of how well managed the Foundation is. Good program teams at Foundations will rarely give consideration to budgets when they begin the review process. The prioritisation process is where this should start and comes once you know what projects are the right ‘fit’ with your Foundation.

    Making sure Foundation staff are connected to and have good knowledge of your project is a role for the grant seeker to play, and stands to ‘increase their odds’. You’re right, a reviewer with good knowledge of an organisation or their programs will absolutely feel more comfortable in recommending support – philanthropy is largely about backing good people to do good work – it helps to have a good understanding of the personalities involved.

    Your points 4-7 are all things that a grant seeker can address to remove the element of luck, like this:
    • make sure your proposal is well presented, easy to read and free from blatant and consistent grammatical errors (but we know we all get some wrong now and then)
    • Encourage and provide opportunities for the Foundation to engage on the ground
    • Ensure you get your proposal in on time – it’s only fair
    • Bad proposals and poor applications are two different things, good funders will be able to differentiate, but presenting a good proposal well will always increase your chances of success, regardless of who you are.

    Thanks again!

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