9 Grant-Writing Mistakes Panelists Wish You'd Stop Making

March 11, 2021

Dance artists put in painstaking hours of work applying for grants. But all too often, their efforts are derailed by mistakes that could have been fixed in mere minutes.

Since the panelists who decide what gets funded often have to read more than 100 applications, yours needs to be as clear and error-free as possible. We asked three experts for the easily avoidable mistakes they see over and over again:

Not Doing Your Research

You don’t want to spend hours working on an application that will be rejected because the funder doesn’t support individual choreographers, or funds touring but not new work. “Know who your funder is and what they’re interested in funding,” says Nikki Estes, presenting and touring program director at South Arts. Check the organization’s website carefully for program descriptions and requirements, and see who they’ve funded in the past.

Not Asking Questions

If you’re not sure whether your project is a good fit, don’t be afraid to ask. Funder websites should have contact information for staff who can explain their program and requirements. Be polite but persistent—and don’t be intimidated. “Especially for artists who are new to grant writing, it can be scary,” says Sara Nash, director of dance at the National Endowment for the Arts. “For us, it’s heartbreaking if we get an application and the project is not a good match, and we’re like ‘If they had just called, we could have helped them.’ ”

Assuming Everyone Knows You

Just because you’ve been touring to full theaters in your state, or have received recognition in the press, doesn’t mean panelists—who come from different fields and areas of the country—will know who you are. So make sure to describe yourself. “Don’t assume because you have a certain body of work you can casually mention ‘I’m gonna do this’ and not offer information on how or why,” Nash says.

Writing Marketing Copy

Write as concisely and informatively as possible. This is not the place for the kind of language you’d use in a marketing brochure or social media post. Instead, minimize the adjectives and maximize the information. “Talking about how you’re the most amazing and fantastic organization doesn’t transmit anything,” says Nash. Another no-no is using jargon like “diversity” and “community building,” unless you can explain just how your audience is diverse or how your series builds community—and why that’s important. “Often artists try to cater to what they think the panel wants,” says Indira Goodwine, program director for dance at the New England Foundation for the Arts and of NEFA’s National Dance Project. “They’re giving you grant-speak versus being authentic to who they are as people and artists.” One possible solution: Record yourself explaining your project out loud to a friend or colleague, then transcribe and work from there.

Ignoring the Questions

The questions in a grant application are there for specific reasons, and your answers tell the panel if your project fulfills the program’s goals. Does your timeline fall within the required dates? How will you reach a particular community? Even established companies sometimes make this mistake, says Nash. “The questions being asked connect to funding criteria used to evaluate that application,” she says. If it’s a multipart question, make sure you address each one. “Sometimes people will only answer the first half of the question, and never get around to the second part,” Nash says.

Sending the Wrong Video

Dance funding programs often ask for a video, but panelists can’t evaluate your work if it’s out of focus, or full of confusing cuts and close-ups. A clean, simple, stationary video that shows the choreography and is shot in a theater or studio is best. Adhere to the time limit, and only submit video that’s relevant to your application.

Copying Your Last Application

Even if you’ve gotten funding before, keep your application fresh by explaining what’s new or why your project still matters. How are you improving your dance-in-the-schools initiative? Why do you keep presenting this local choreographer? “A common mistake is that people go back and change the dates and it’s the same application,” says Estes. “That doesn’t excite a funder.”

Writing Directly in the Portal

You don’t want to lose your carefully crafted application to an internet glitch or because the grant portal timed out. Instead, write in Word or another program where you can save your work, rewrite, check spelling and grammar, and make sure you’re within character-count limits.

Not Following Up

Whether you receive funding or not, call or email to find out why, and what you can do better next time. “You might hear what panelists loved, what questions they had or what was confusing,” says Nash. “This is how grant writing can be professional development.”