Why funding applications fail

Experts from Australia Council, Creative Victoria, Arts Queensland and more tell you what you are doing wrong when applying for funding.

Securing grants funding has become an even more precarious task since the Federal Government has shifted funding into contentious new organisations such as the National Program for Excellence in the Arts and the Book Council of Australia. 

How can you make your application stand out in a climate where funding pools are diminishing and competition for grants is fierce?

We ask grant experts from the Australia Council for the Arts, Creative Victoria, Arts Queensland and independent grant writers and assessors to share why funding applications fail in order to shed light on how to get your project funded. 

The application or idea was unclear

It may sound obvious, but many applications fail to receive funding because they haven’t
communicated what the project, concept, idea or plan actually is in a cohesive and concise manner. 

Becoming deeply engaged with a project can make it difficult to explain it clearly to others. Yolande Norris, who writes and edits grants almost weekly and has sat on peer assessment panels for Arts ACT and NAVA, identified some common pitfalls in a Grant Writing For Artists – Advice and Musings.
‘This happens more than you would think. I have read grant [applications] where you finish none the wiser as to what the artist even does,’ said Norris.

A common issue with applications is that they assume that the assessor has prior knowledge of the idea, project or artist. Even if an assessor is familiar with your work, they are assessing by the criteria and only what the application has provided. Overlooking simple details for the sake of assumption can compromise your success. 

Andy Donovan, Director, Artist Services at Australia Council for the Arts, recommends applicants assume that the assessors know nothing about their work and ‘provide enough information about themselves, their career to date, where they have come from as an artist, what they have achieved as an artist and what their experience is.’

You didn’t call the funding body

Donovan said a common mistake people make with applications is not interpreting or understanding the guidelines. This can be addressed by calling the funding body in the first instance. 

‘It is very important that people give us a call at the Australia Council if they have any doubts about what they are proposing. They can talk through their idea with a grants officer and make sure they are on the right track,’ he said.

‘Anecdotally, I think people have a better chance of success when they have sought advice and have that bit of extra information of what we are looking for in the different categories, said Donovan.

Christabel Harvey, Manager of VicArts Grants, Creative Victoria agreed. ‘Don’t be afraid to call us, don't leave it to the last minute. Obviously we understand that artists are working hard at their practice and working other jobs, but it does take a bit of planning and effort.’

The proposal didn’t excite

Applications fail if fundamentally the idea wasn’t able to excite or prove to offer impact and tangible results. Norris points out that many forget that there is a team of passionate arts people on the receiving end.

‘You have to remember there are real people who are going to review these applications and for the most part, they are art makers and lovers themselves and have a wealth of experience. They have seen a lot and heard and lot and will be able to differentiate between a really fresh exciting idea and one that is maybe been done a few times over,’ she said.

It’s your unique drive and motivation that can sway an assessor, said Bec Mackey of Brightside Creatives who recently explored the pitfalls of funding applications on her blog.  ‘The most important thing is to create a connection and show who you really are and what your passion is and what is driving your work. Demonstrating that is probably always going to set you apart,’ she said. 

Watch for dry, academic language when writing your application. ‘People think that they need to explain things in either highly theoretical or highly academic language and nothing could be further from the truth. We want people to write very plain and simple applications, avoid jargon, and really just explain what they want to do, how they want to do it, and why they want to do it,’ said Donovan.  

You didn't read the fine print

One of the obvious disqualifiers is not doing what was asked of you, overlooking criteria or submitting something that is irrelevant, said Mackey. 

Harvey said that it is clear when requirements are glossed over and underdeveloped applications do not progress very far. Missing artistic support material and submitting an ill-formulated budget can compromise your written proposal. 

‘Our peer assessors do interrogate the budgets quite carefully. We do expect applicants to have other sources of support whether it be in kind, another grant, a cash contribution or other revenue streams,’ said Harvey.  

‘It is very evident in an application when an applicant hasn't done the required planning and that usually comes through.’

Be sure to know the requirements inside out. ‘It would be important for applicants to read the guidelines for each funding program to ensure they meet eligibility criteria,’ said a spokesperson from Arts Queensland.

You undersold your skills 

Irrespective of career stage, Norris has observed a tendency for people to downplay their skills and achievements in a funding application, which can have the consequence of conjuring doubt in the assessor's mind. 

While it may be uncomfortable for some to highlight their successes, it is counterproductive to diminish them in an application. 

‘You need to cut to the chase and be confident and be bold. No assessor is sitting there thinking this person is so up themselves – it is actually really useful to just get to the point as soon as you can,’ she said. 

‘The best idea is to just really go for gold and talk straight and not downplay or try and soften what your aims are or what you believe your skills and experience are. Put emphasis where emphasis is due. You owe it to yourself to play it up and downplay things that are not as relevant,’ said Norris. 

One suggestion is to write about your work in the third person, said Norris. ‘You can change it back once you’re done if you like – whatever seems right. Better yet, talk a writer-type friend through your work and get them to write one for you, or at the very least vet your attitude.’

Also be sure to put yourself in the budget. Creatives may have a tendency to underestimate their worth and may overlook putting themselves in the budget, which can have a negative impact when assessors want to see that all creative work is valued in the project.

The support material was irrelevant or excluded

Some may make the mistake of becoming too familiar with the Ctrl V and Ctrl C buttons when filling out applications. Be sure to answer the question asked of you, instead of trailing off into a tried and tested response. 

‘Be wary of going into autopilot, especially as you do more and more grant writing – you can fall into the trap of writing what you think they want to hear,’ warns Norris. 

Provide letters of support from people who really understand your project and work, said Norris. 

With a looming deadline, it is easy to feel overwhelmed and skip the details. Stand out applications will include marketing and partnership strategies where appropriate. 

Arts Queensland points out that it’s important to allocate adequate funds to market your project. Include things like how you will use social media and marketing strategies for your proposal. 

Also highlight potential collaborators and financial supportors with details about their contribution alongside letters of confirmation.

The application was left to the last minute 

Harvey said it is obvious when an application comes through half-cooked because it has been left to the last minute. 

Donovan agrees. ‘The best applications are the best planned applications, which generally means you don’t start it the night before… If you are doing everything at the last minute it is highly likely it will be less competitive. That is something I will really stress to people – think carefully about the planning and put in an application that has all the I’s dotted and T’s crossed.’

A key tip from Norris is to avoid writing your application directly into the online forms as you may risk losing it if there is a technical problem. It can be helpful to keep all grant applications as a reference for future funding opportunities. 

The budget was not viable

There are pitfalls in aiming too high and too low in funding applications. 

Mackey refers to asking for too little as the shoestring trap. ‘A project’s viability is as important as anything. If you were to submit a project to a funding program with a low budget with the hope that you will get funding, it will work against you. It may look as if you don't really have the ability to project manage and budget effectively.’

Asking for unrealistic funds or aiming too high is another pitfall, said Norris. ‘Again this demonstrates lack of understanding or smacks of inexperience. Relatedly, don’t try to do too many things at once. Many projects benefit from being rolled out in phases. A huge, unwieldy application and budget can be streamlined by instead applying for an initial phase, such as research or creative development.’

The project wasn’t ready

If the project or idea has not been work-shopped or well-thought out it won't be funded, explained Mackey. While some grants are tailored to emerging artists or solely for the development of ideas, if the quality is not there it won’t make it through the competitive application process. 

‘Sometimes there is a feeling in the arts that if there is grant program available, that you just need to throw your application in just in case, and that is not really the attitude to have. You have got to be more strategic and know that your work needs to fit the particular mould of that program,’ explained Mackey. 

Harvey admits that sometimes the success of an application comes down to timing and going the ‘extra mile’ to highlight future outcomes. ‘One success factor has to do with timeliness – if someone is making a strong case for why they need funding and the impact it is going to have now, as well as how it will further their career.’

A timeline is crucial to communicate your experience, the viability of a project and identify future opportunities. ‘A detailed timeline is a really good way of showing your planning,’ said Harvey. 

The Arts Queensland initiative Arts Acumen has developed a list of top ten tips for applying for funding, with demonstrating impact being one. ‘If you are applying for government funding programs be mindful taxpayer funds are contributing to your initiative and you need to articulate the social, community or cultural return on the public investment.’

Read the full article on ArtsHub