The Business of Art: Proposal Writing for Funding Projects

The Business of Art: Proposal Writing for Funding Projects

Securing a grant requires organization, research, and follow-through. Below you will find the key components for a successful search and a brief description of the different types of granting organizations.

First, clarify exactly what you want funding for. Write an abstract that clearly answers the following questions: What is the project? What is its importance and to whom? How will it be accomplished? (Include any other sources of financial or material support). Who is responsible for the project? (Include the qualifications of this person, agency, etc.). Will anyone assist or collaborate? Where will the project take place? What is the project’s time-line? (Be precise). What is the expected outcome? Who will benefit from the project? Be positive, specific, and concise; avoid flowery, vague, or passive language. Show that your project has merit and that you are qualified to complete it in a timely and professional manner.

Research to identify potential sources of financial support (see below). Using your abstract as a guide, locate sources that specifically state they support projects by individual artists in your discipline and geographical area. Check what types of projects they have funded in the past (request their annual report for a list of previous grantees and dollar amounts). Do not try to shape your project to meet the demands of a potential funder. Rather, take the time to find funders that share your interests.

NOTE: The majority of foundations give money to nonprofit (501©(3)) organizations and not individuals. To get around this, individual artists can seek project or fiscal sponsorship from an umbrella arts organization. These organizations work as the go-between, giving the individual artist credibility, and functioning as a guarantee to the granting foundation. For tips on getting sponsorship, see the Foundation Center Website ( or NYFA Source (, or consult the books listed below.

Once you have identified a potential funder, contact them directly to request current granting guidelines and introduce yourself, though some places prefer the application process remain impersonal. This initial call will save you time and money by letting you know if your project is of interest to them. Also, the information you’ll find in reference books or online may be out-of-date, so it’s important to call and confirm the details. Read the granting guidelines carefully, and, utilizing your abstract, follow them closely.

There are a number of scenarios that may arise when you submit your application. Sometimes foundations will request an initial Letter of Intent (LOI), a short (two pages max) letter explaining your project. If that piques their interest, they will then contact you for a full, more detailed proposal. When sending a full proposal, include everything the foundation asks for in an organized, professional packet. Include a one-page cover letter that briefly states what you are requesting. If possible, address the letter to the appropriate person at the foundation. Include examples of your work, but don’t get carried away, and never send originals unless specifically requested. A large, unwieldy proposal packet will only hurt your chances and your wallet. When possible, include a letter of support from a favorite arts organization, teacher, or mentor.

Once you’ve sent your LOI or proposal, stay organized. Make a note of the name of the person you talked to, what materials you sent, the dates, etc. It may take several months for them to get back to you; don’t be afraid to call and check the status of your file. When you do receive a grant, immediately send a thank you letter and make a note of all grant requirements. Most foundations require one or more grant reports with specific deadlines. If you get a rejection, call the person who signed the letter and ask them what exactly made you ineligible. Make it clear that you respect their decision and want to know how to improve your chances in the future.

Types of Granting Organizations and how to approach them

1) Private (or Independent) Foundations: A private foundation is usually established by a wealthy family or individual to make financial contributions to charitable causes. The Foundation Center ( tracks private foundations and offers a wealth of information, including online librarians, proposal writing tutorials, and a massive database. Their headquarters are located in New York City and Washington, DC, with regional collections in Atlanta, Cleveland, and San Francisco. These locations offer free access to their materials, reference librarians, and free monthly trainings. If you are outside these locations, check the Foundation Center’s Website to see if your local library has access to their “Cooperation Collection,” which offers their core collection of information free to the public. Otherwise, you can sign up for Internet access to the Foundation Center’s database, though there is a charge. NYFA Source ( offers completely free of charge the most extensive national database of awards, services, and publications for artists working in all disciplines.

When approaching private foundations, remember you are selling your project, so make it appealing and significant. Think about the social ramifications of the project, not just the personal ones. Foundations want to show that they are doing something positive, something for the greater good of the community. Explain how your project is unique and how it meets their funding criteria.

2) Corporate Foundations: Corporate foundations are established by companies, and giving takes place almost exclusively at the locations where the company has its operations. Try contacting your local Better Business Bureau or Chamber of Commerce for information on local companies that support the arts. While the basic rules for applying to corporate foundations are the same as for private, there are a few distinctions. Corporate foundations, while ostensibly separate from the corporation itself, most often work to promote the company’s image, please stockholders, and motivate employees. While most do give money to the arts, grants are usually fairly small, and selected projects are usually non-threatening and mostly mainstream. When determining if a corporate foundation is worth approaching, ask yourself what the company will gain by supporting your project. You will be most successful if you reside in an area where the company is active, if your project benefits the local community, and if someone in the company knows you. Again, companies are less likely to support individuals than organizations, so find a nonprofit sponsor to work with.

3) Government: The National Endowment for the Arts is the primary federal arts agency (, although literature is the only area in which it now makes regular grants to individual artists. Government applications are generally short and straightforward, but follow them carefully and make sure you have the current application, as requirements change frequently. Grants are usually given out once a year. Be sure to follow up on your application and be persistent. It is not uncommon for things to get lost. There is also regional support (contact the regional arts organization that serves your state of residency), state support (contact the State Arts Commission or Council) and local government support (contact the State Arts Commission or Council or your local government representative) available.

4) In-Kind Donations: If materials or equipment are needed for your project, contact the manufacturer directly for a donation—especially if they are local. If you get a “no,” try contacting someone else higher up in the organization. Local stores and distribution centers can be approached, especially for outdated, used, or slightly damaged goods. If you have a sponsor with nonprofit status, remind the potential donor that a donation is tax-deductible. Approach potential donors with a concise outline of your material needs, how they will be utilized, and the projected outcome. Corporate and private foundations indicate in their granting guidelines if they make in-kind donations. — Yedda Morrison

Yedda Morrison is an Oakland-based poet and visual artist who has been working as a development consultant for various Bay Area nonprofit organizations for over six years. She also co-edits the internationally distributed literary and visual arts journalTripwire, and teaches creative writing at Hospitality House, a community arts space open to all homeless and low-income residents of the Tenderloin. Her first book, Crop, is forthcoming from Kelsey Street Press in spring 2003.


Thompson, Waddy, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Grant Writing. Alpha Books, 2nd edition, January 2007. A complete guide from researching prospects, to writing the proposal, to filing your final report. The second edition offers a new chapter just for individuals seeking grants, including a section on writing artist statements. Written by NYFA’s former Director of External Affairs.

Browing, Beverly A. Grant Writing For Dummies. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2001. 
Tap into deep government, foundation, and corporate pockets to fulfill your nonprofit organization’s needs for funding. An expert tells you how to successfully target these institutions and get them to put their money behind your organization’s cause.

Carlson, Mim. Winning Grants: Step By Step. Second edition. New York: Jossey-Bass, 2002.
In easy-to-understand terms, Carlson leads the reader through the steps of creating a proposal that fulfills the three most important criteria grantmakers demand from a competitive proposal.

Hayes, Lisa, Don Hoffman, and Denise Lamoreaux. Winning Strategies for Developing Grant Proposals. Washington, DC: Thompson Publishing Group, 1999. 
This book helps professionals in local governments, educational agencies, community-based nonprofit groups, and other organizations develop successful, well-written grant proposals.

Hoover, Deborah A. Supporting Yourself as an Artist. Second edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. 
The guide demonstrates how any artist can develop a network of individuals, organizations, and information resources in her or his own community and beyond.

Michels, Carol. How To Survive and Prosper as an Artist: Selling Yourself without Selling Your Soul. Fifth edition. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2001. 
This book shares the secrets and reveals the resources that can lead to success in the art world.

Amy Aronoff
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