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Grant Writing, Fundraising, and Sponsorship

Grant Writing

Might as well get this one out of the way first since I probably know the least about it. In a previous existence as a Social Worker in a county Health Department, I wrote a grant for a drug abuse center. Working for the government is great preparation for anything else since no other group will ever be that confusing! When I decided to apply for grants from Art Alliances for some of my artists, the paperwork did not seem that daunting because I had definitely seen worse.

By the way, the grants that I am talking about here are not of the variety that pay you $30,000 annually to compose in the garret of your choice. Once you qualify for these grants, the arts agency will then provide matching funds (generally at about 50% of the fee but sometimes less) to the hiring agency toward the artist's fee. This entitles setting up a fee structure ahead of time (in a pretty flexible way but structured nevertheless) and it also means that, once you qualify for the grant, you still have to get in touch with all the various arts agencies and set up the bookings. However, the arts organization usually puts out a very nice directory which has a description for each performer, including a picture, which greases the skids considerably. I have only dealt with the artist's end of this process. There are, clearly, grants for venues also. I have skimmed the paperwork for same and it looked to be a bit more demanding since they wanted to know quite a few more specifics: annual revenues, etc. However, a cursory glance at the forms didn't turn up anything that I wouldn't expect a venue operator not to know or easily be able to document.

My first suggestion is to give yourself plenty of time to put together your grant proposal. You're going to be feeling a bit out of your depth through much of the process; no need to compound your anxiety with having to do this while you are sleep-deprived. If the first time you get in touch with the agency to get the forms turns out to be a week before the deadline, just relax and aim for next year. In some cases, you will have to develop materials that they request (posters, ads, bios). Give yourself time to do that well. As they say, "There's never time to do it right but there's always time to do it over." These materials represent you and they ought to look good. Besides, you don't want to be the guy/gal whom the committee remembers from last year as sending "that bio with all the misspellings".

By and large, these agencies have long lead times. Chances are good that you will be writing a proposal which relates to two or three years down the line. Grants are, generally, not quick fixes.

At least for me, being bewildered is part of the process. Despite putting together a 100-page plus grant for a drug center (yes, we got the grant), the first time I plowed through the eight pages of explanation of an arts grant, my primary reaction was, "What?????". Take a deep breath (or a break), start to go through the material a second time and take notes on your questions. The good news is that I discovered that many of the folks administering these grants are extremely nice, patient, well-informed and accessible. It seemed as if every time I contacted them, my sentence began, "I'm sure this is a stupid question..". Don't be afraid to ask all your questions - call it research. That approach is preferable to my mind than not getting a grant because you didn't cross a t with that special little slash they call for. More good news: once you have figured out how to fill out any particular agency's grant form, future forms will take about 35 minutes.


It's tough for me to separate "fundraising" and "sponsorship" since I have found getting sponsors to be the primary way to make any fundraising project work. However, for the purposes of this workshop, let's isolate "fundraising" as an activity/event where you are trying to minimize your costs, maximize your income and doing so without underwriting from a group(s).

My own bias is that successful fundraising without sponsorship requires several components, the most important being a truly unique idea. By and large, these concepts turn out to be pretty labor-intensive which translates you need a lot of people to make it happen. Consequently, you often need quite a bit of lead time to put it together. Not only do you have to recruit the people but then they need the necessary time to follow up on the plan. Basically, the modus operandi here is still sponsorship in another guise. Instead of donating money, volunteers are donating time and expertise to make something work. It is an equally valuable commodity as cold, hard cash.

One of the biggest mistakes is to think small and familiar. You can hold five bake sales a year, costing nothing, netting a few hundred per (if you are diligent) and burn everyone out really quickly with this "lots of work, little to show for it" approach. At the risk of alienating the entire coffeehouse circuit, I'm equally unenamoured of the benefit concert which features five performers that you can see anywhere in the immediate vicinity any time. Unless someone connected with the event has a special relationship with a high-draw performer and feels comfortable asking them to donate their time, you are better off deciding who you think would be good to have for your region/event and try and negotiate a price you can live with (i.e., can pay and still make money). Another approach might be to form an alliance with a radio station to broadcast the program. Artists who otherwise might not consider appearing for free or at reduced rates might consider it if they are getting airtime out of it. The Hartland Folk Festival is a fundraiser for the volunteer fire department but the performers all get paid. Not exorbitant fees but reasonable ones, knowing it is a fundraiser. They get an impressive lineup every year and also do quite well financially.

To my mind, there is much to be said for coming up with something besides the benefit concert. Among other things, if you diversify a bit, you may start tapping into a new market who were previously unaware of you. Get some local celebrities to come out and team up with others for a golf tournament. I know a group that made a killing with a "Celebrity Auction". They wrote a truckload of letters to celebrities requesting an item to auction and got back such things as a slipper James Michener wore while writing Chesapeake and an draft of a "Peanuts" cartoon from Charles Schultz. One great idea goes a long way.


Sponsors, to me, are the answer to the fundraising question. Trying to get by just on sales of anything is a limited situation at best. Sponsors can do things for you that you could never accomplish on your own.

This is going to sound simplistic to the nth degree but the primary rule for getting sponsors is "Ask". There's an alarming number of groups out there who do not seem to understand that, unless you approach someone and ask for what you want, chances are good that you are not going to get it. They form committees to talk about whom they could approach and spend all their time talking about why they shouldn't do anything: They might say no; they're too big; they won't be interested; we need to write everything up, etc. After a while, talking replaces doing and you are no better off than you were when you started except now everyone is tired of the subject. On the other hand, if you get out there and ask for something and get turned down, you are exactly where you were before, no worse. At least that opens up the possibility that you may not get turned down!

My philosophy is start doing something right away. Figure out whom you want to approach. Think big - for example, there are some national firms that are based in my area, such as Giant Foods and Black & Decker. National money with regional ties - perfect! Like it or not, it's a fact of life that the regional distributors for liquor companies have lots of money and are already geared toward funding an event. If you don't want to deal with the whole alcohol thing, consider going after one with an alcohol-free alternative. (Any pub owner can tell you how to reach your regional distributor for any brand).

One of the few great truths in fundraising: Money begats money. If you have a friend who is a successful businessperson, take him/her to lunch and solicit their suggestions. We all have some idea of which professions have potential for the highest incomes: perhaps a large law firm would be interested in sponsoring (and they may not get approached all that often); how about a medical facility; perhaps commercial land developers? Wealthy people in positions of power know where to find people similar to them: you need to try and locate a few of these folks and enlist them in the cause.

Another critical element is attitude. I occasionally run across a group whose approach seems to be something akin to "We have a righteous cause; anybody would be thrilled to sponsor something we do and therefore do a good thing for humanity." And, while they sit waiting for the phone to ring, all available sponsors are being snapped up by the organizations that are out there ringing other people's phones. There are a myriad of worthy causes out there. That's a given for everyone so what can you do to make yours special and convince a sponsor to sign on? As much as possible, walk a mile in your would-be sponsor's Guccis and try and figure out what your event or organization offers him that others don't: a market he hasn't reached before, an especially high profile, whatever.

Do as much research as you can. If you are looking for a sponsor for a concert series, it may make sense to steer clear of companies that are already sponsoring a series in your area. Call and inquire regarding whom is the correct person to contact and whether there is any protocol/deadlines that you ought to know about. About half the time you will get lucky and get someone on the other end who is willing to give you a bit more insight: perhaps this is a group that never writes checks but they will kick in on shared advertising. Good thing to know going into a meeting.

Don't assume that anything is more complicated than it is. Not every possible sponsor needs to see a written proposal and five years worth of tax returns. Some people are perfectly happy to set up a meeting and have you describe your event or organization. Be well-informed and wildly enthusiastic about whatever your topic is. You may want to take support material or examples of advertising from previous events and offer to leave it. Sometimes things fall into place for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with you and you could never have anticipated. When I approached our Annapolis Pepsi distributor for sponsorship of a weekend event, they fell all over themselves trying to do things with us: they sponsored a stage for the whole weekend, supplied T-shirts, door prizes, made all their marketing personnel available the day of the event, etc. Turned out that hardly anybody ever approached them to sponsor anything, generally bypassing them to go after the larger distributors in Baltimore and Washington, DC. I went in there all ready to tell them why this would be a great marketing thing for them and, ten minutes into it, we were at the "Yes, we can do that. What else would you like?" stage. No one was more surprised than I was by that turn of events. But it all would not have happened if I had never picked up the phone, saying, "Gosh, I bet they get a zillion of these calls a week.."

I'm sure there are fundraising guides which say that you should know what it is you would like before going into the meeting and that certainly makes sense on the face of it. On the other side of the coin, I cannot help but notice that I've often gotten much more than I ever would have expected because I wasn't too clear about what I wanted. Especially with companies that have a marketing division, it can be really interesting to say, "How would you see your participation in this event?". In many cases, they came up with things I would never have thought to suggest and/or never would have thought I could get. Obviously, this doesn't work in every situation but it's worth remembering as an option. The big exception I would make to that suggestion is with a media sponsor where you are receiving in-kind services (i.e., they are providing print, radio or TV coverage). Do your homework with them - get their advertising rates ahead of time, learn the basics of their fee system (placement, etc.) so when you sit down together to draw up an advertising schedule, you can knowledgeably negotiate some good coverage.

A part of this that often gets neglected is, once you have a sponsor, do everything you can to keep them. Treat them like solid gold. You'd be surprised how many people don't even send thank you notes for donations! Make sure that is the least of your efforts. Be relentless in insuring they are getting something for their money or in-kind donation. If your event has posters, get some signed for your top sponsors. Be diligent in giving them credit on all materials. Figure out some way to credit them during the event: display a banner, etc. Be open to consider anything which acknowledges their contribution: a thank-you party, a meeting with a performer, special seating, ads in a program, designer badges. I suggested to one concert series that they ask each of their performers for a CD to give to the sponsors. Turned out to be a huge hit and, in this case, cost the series nothing but the time and shipping. However, if you have to spend $100 to insure a $5,000 sponsor feels great about his involvement, it will be one of the best investments you can make.

A good example of doing this right, in my opinion, is the Bethlehem Musikfest. They are huge and virtually every stage is tied to a sponsor. Not only do they make sure that their sponsors' names are everywhere, including regularly acknowledged from stage but, after the event, they sent a letter to the performers (or, in my case, their reps) with a list of sponsor contacts and addresses, suggesting we write and tell them what a good time we had on the stage they sponsored. What a great idea! Of course, I wrote a glowing letter which, hopefully, helped them which, obviously, is of some interest to me, too. I would like to think that everyone else who got that letter did the same. (I don't think that but I would like to!)


© McShane Glover/Noteworthy Productions

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