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Lessons from My 1st Year in Philanthropy

Saturday, February 11, 2017 8:59 PM | Steven Dawson (Administrator)

By Messay Derebe

Having spent the majority of my professional career working for arts organizations, the transition to philanthropy over the last year and half has been very educational and eye opening. As someone who has seen both sides of the fence, I thought I would share a handful of the lessons I have learned in my short time about successfully submitting a grant proposal!

There is no substitute for research. As a rule, “Do your research,” is versatile advice that can serve one well under almost all circumstances but when submitting numerous proposals to many institutions, it can be a bit daunting to do all the necessary research for each potential funder. However, submitting a grant proposal that is not suited to the funding priorities of the funder and is unlikely to receive funding is more time consuming. As much as possible, learn about the funding priorities and funding history of the foundation before submitting a proposal. Key questions include: What types of organizations or projects are typically funded? What is the average grant amount? Is there a preference for general operating requests versus project requests? Are there geographic limitations to funding? The answers to these questions can help you determine if there is alignment between your mission and the funder’s priorities.

If you don’t receive funding, ask “why?” After doing the necessary research and submitting a proposal, if you receive a letter from a foundation indicating your proposal has been declined, it is understandable to want to document the loss and move on to the next proposal. After all, what could be gained from follow-up if there is no funding attached? Well, plenty. Whenever possible, reach out to the foundation and request feedback on why a proposal was declined. Not every foundation will give you a direct answer but it is worth the effort for those that will. Though the decision has already been made and you may not agree with all the feedback, it is incredibly useful to know for future applications where there might be amendable weaknesses in a proposal or to hear where there are opportunities for clarity. It can also be an occasion to hear about best-practices of other organizations that have successfully received a grant.

Which leads me to…

“No” this year doesn’t mean “no” forever. Proposals get declined for a number of reasons. It could be that the request doesn’t fit with the particular foundation’s priorities but it could also mean there were questions about finances, leadership changes, program scale, etc. While funding priorities are unlikely to change year to year, if the circumstances of your organization change in respect to finances, leadership, program, etc., it might make sense to reapply in subsequent years. This is where the feedback mentioned above can come in handy in determining when it is worth the time and energy to resubmit a proposal the following year.  

Emerging Arts Leaders DC (EALDC) is a part of the national Emerging Leaders Network, developed by Americans for the Arts, and is fiscally sponsored by Fractured Atlas.
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