In this time of COVID-19, many creators are thinking about how to access the funds they need to continue sharing their gifts with the world. Although most grant opportunities right now are emergency grants, foundations and organizations will be opening up their normal grant-making process before we know it. Moreover, there are countless residencies and contests that are still accepting submissions from creatives around the world. That said, the process of getting a grant, residency or landing a submission acceptance can be mystifying for many creatives. It certainly was for me.
But after several funded grant proposals and a number of residencies, I inadvertently discovered one of the best ways to learn how to write better grant or residency proposals: be a reader or evaluator yourself.
Seeing as an Evaluator
A couple of years ago I was asked to be a reader for an immersive theater residency in my city, and the whole process profoundly changed my outlook on writing applications. Immersive theater is perhaps one of the most difficult mediums to write or read proposals for because many projects are abstract or might require visual, spatial, lighting and/or sound elements that are challenging to picture.
It was during this experience that I gleaned some really valuable lessons. I perused many applications that had so much promise–but sometimes the picture just wasn’t complete. I would think to myself: “I kind of see what this person is getting at, but they’re assuming I have a level of knowledge about (insert technology or medium) that I simply do not.”
Or a proposal would hook me in with a really compelling introduction or summary, but when I got to the details, the information that I was excited to dig into simply wasn’t there. I really wanted it to be. From this review process, I learned to avoid making assumptions about what the organization receiving my application would already know.
Clearing the Path
It’s imperative to make your application as clear to your reader as possible. When you look at the submission process from the perspective of the people reading your application, it tends to serve as a reminder that on the other end of your application are real human beings. They are rooting for you. But they also know nothing about you or your project outside of that piece of paper or digital submission.
So paint a picture. Give the necessary context that a reader needs. Make analogies to projects they might be familiar with. Try to use your supplementary materials to get as close to what you’re envisioning as you can (even if it’s just a collection of images).
I know sometimes it can be draining to give context. I’ve created so many projects and I’ve hated using shorthand like “It’s the three little bears, but in Victorian Europe.” It can feel reductionist to your project and unique vision. But for evaluators who may be reading dozens or even hundreds of proposals in a single day, giving them that shorthand—something to hook into—really can be immensely helpful.
Becoming an Evaluator
Being an evaluator gives you so much insight about the things that you yourself would want to see from a creative—a clarity of vision, a depth of detail, an organization of resources, and so much more—which is invaluable in crafting much tighter proposals.
There are many organizations that are constantly looking for volunteer readers, and this can be a great way to gain insight on landing an acceptance for an opportunity in your field that you’re excited about. You can reach out to relevant cultural commissions, institutions, contest boards, or online journals and ask if they’re looking for any readers or evaluators in your field. Sometimes there are also public postings (especially with local opportunities) for readers that are needed for a particular creative opportunity.
In the end, it can be invaluable to get behind the scenes in the evaluation process, especially when there is funding involved. It’ll help to expose gaps in your own process and to make your next application or pitch that much more effective. And it can likely put you one step closer to landing an opportunity that will boost your career.