Making grant applications takes a lot of time, and is highly competitive: avoid wasting your resources by considering whether to apply before putting pen to paper, or if it’s better to wait until a project is more developed, has more support, or you have done more preparatory work.

Funding programmes can expect a certain level of experience from their applicants. You should find out and ask yourself basic things like:

  • Who has won the award in the past? Are they at a similar career stage to me, or am I ‘close enough’?
  • What did they do before they got the opportunity?
  • How will my winning this opportunity result in long-term benefits to my career, and the way I want to be an artist?
  • What is the application procedure, and do I have time to make a good application before the deadline?
  • Is the work that I make suitable for this opportunity?

Once you have completed your research, be honest with yourself as to your chances of success.  Filling in applications that you have no chance of getting will waste your time, and where a submission fee is involved, your money.  Be selective and only take on as many submissions as you have time for – and make sure that none of the projects have timetables that clash.

Think about the suitability of what you are applying for.  Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does my application fulfil the criteria?
  • Is this the right opportunity to be applying for?
  • Do I stand a fair chance of getting the opportunity I am applying for?

Are you eligible?

  • Many funders will only consider applications from organisations: confirm that the funder also provides funds to individuals.
  • Make sure your project costs and activities are within the scope of the funding programme. Some funders have rules or guidelines about what they can and cannot fund. Read all the guidance notes carefully.
  • Remember that deadlines are not negotiable: late applications will probably go straight into the bin.
  • Complete the application form properly, or where there isn’t one write your covering letter in the way they request. Larger funders may contact you if you’ve made a mistake, but even that is unlikely.  Smaller funders don’t have the resources and will probably reject incomplete or incorrect applications.
  • If there is anything you are unsure about, after reading all the available guidance notes, don’t guess – contact the funder and ask.

How much should you apply for?

There are a lot of myths around grant funding – including that you should never ask for the full amount possible.  Any intelligent and responsible funder wants to fund projects that are going to be successful, and that means they need to be properly funded.  They may state they can’t cover all costs, but will still want to know where you intend to get the rest of the money.  You are very unlikely to get funding for a project that is only partially funded if you have no clear, likely plans for how you will cover the shortfall.

Before you know how much to apply for, you need to understand your costs – including your own time and overheads.

A well-presented budget, split into clear sections or headings and shows how you’ve calculated your costs, is an important part of an application.

Can you meet the criteria and priorities?

Funders publish priorities and criteria about what they are can fund: sometimes these can be quite broad and hard to interpret.  If you’re not sure if your project is eligible, contact the funder and briefly outline what you are thinking of applying for to check whether it sounds like the kind of activity they support.

If you’re applying for funds that have been awarded before, look at what kinds of projects and artists they’ve supported recently to give you a better understanding of what they might be looking for. Many funders publish lists of projects and individuals they have funded.

As trusts and foundations are charities, you can also find this information in their published accounts on the Charity Commission website.

What’s the competition?

Our research with visual artists revealed than many artists are making unsuccessful applications to public funders and trusts and foundations: nearly 85% had applied with only 30% being successful.  Arts Council England’s figures show that individuals have around a 32% success rate, nationwide (2008-11).

Other large funders may publish information about how many applications they receive and the ratio of success to failure, but you still need to think about whether you are at the right stage of your career to be applying to some funders. Take a look at the artists who’ve been supported recently – are they around the same stage as you, should you wait, or have you missed your chance?

Do I have time to make a good application?

All application processes are different. It will save time if you’ve got some core application resources prepared, but you will always need to tailor every individual application.

It’s never a good idea to leave applying to the last moment – your computer might break, some urgent business might arise, you might be unable to ask a funder a question in time.  Proposals also take a long time to prepare, edit and clarify, and a budget can take time to research costs and get quotes.

Is a grant the best way to fund this activity, or are there other options?

Grants are an increasingly scarce commodity – you are unlikely to receive more than one grant from any single funder, so consider carefully what to apply for.  You don’t want to use a valuable opportunity on something that you may have been able to finance or achieve in another way.

Some grant funders have fixed deadlines, while others can take weeks or months to make a decision. You might not have time to wait for a reply before you need to start your project, and most will not fund activity or costs incurred before the grant is made.

Very often, grant funders may not be interested in supporting the activities you want to fund. There are tailored searches you can do that will help you identify those funders that are interested; try Funding Central and Guidestar to begin with.

Even if you meet the criteria, have time to apply and write an excellent application, there is always fierce competition. Many applicants are rejected simply because there are too many other great applications.

Don’t be put off!  Someone has to get the funding, and if you are well prepared and meet their criteria you stand as good a chance as anyone, and can always ask for feedback on unsuccessful applications.

Before you apply, consider if there are other ways to make your project happen – exchanging skills with another artist, sponsorship from a company, saving or even a loan might be more appropriate at the moment.