With few exceptions museums rely on grant funding to supplement their annual budget. While it’s recommended a museum cultivate a stream of income that supports its yearly activities, most museums can only afford to keep the lights on and maintain a spartan staff.
Additional (temporary) staff, improved supplies and technology, updated software systems, and special projects are usually only possible with the acquisition of additional funds—funds not in the budget. These items are necessary for a museum to meet its mission, but due to the scarcity of reliable operating funds, museums must apply for grants and are therefore subject to an undependable funding scenario.
Being dependent upon grant funding is a common reality for museums, but another reality coexists with this scenario: feeling overwhelmed. Museum staff are so overwhelmed with meeting financial needs they struggle to approach grant funding strategically and fail to craft winning grant ideas.
How not to apply for grants
This state of overwhelm is normally where I meet clients. A museum, archives, or nonprofit will contact me and express a desire to seek grant funding. No money, too many needs, and no development person is traditionally the scenario I find. This is a difficult environment to be in for staff, and it often hampers their ability to make a significant difference in their situation. Phrases I often hear are:
- “We’ll apply for any money we think we can get.”
- “We just need one proposal that we’ll submit to all the grants opportunities.”
- “We need money to keep the lights on.”
- “We have a dozen or more ideas and will apply for all of them to see what sticks.”
These phrases are common but reveal a systemic misunderstanding of how to optimally apply for grant funding. Grant funding needs a strategic approach with well-defined parameters in order to be competitive. Furthermore, the ideas need to be “in addition to” basic museum funding, not the only museum funding. Lastly, shopping the same idea to multiple granting agencies will be noticed and will hurt the application’s chance of success. Here’s specifically why each phrase is dangerous:
“We’ll apply for any money we think we can get.” This phrase reveals the museum is not thinking clearly due to the level of financial pressure experienced. Museums shouldn’t apply for any funding opportunity thought possible. For the best chance of success museums need to strategically approach grants through a series of stakeholder conversations, evaluate and prioritize their needs, and find appropriate grant opportunities. Granting agencies are very specific with who they serve and what they choose to fund. A museum can waste a lot of time and money applying for whatever it thinks it can get—which is a terrible waste of limited resources.
“We just need one proposal that we’ll submit to all the grants opportunities.” This is a classic mistake akin to submitting a generic cover letter for every job you apply for. Grant proposals need to be individually compiled so they are crafted with the granting agency’s funding mission and requirements in mind. In addition, grant agencies talk to each other; if the museum has been identified as one that indiscriminately applies everywhere with one proposal, then it will be quickly dismissed from the application round. Even if this approach were to work, what happens when the museum lands two grants for the same proposal? It would be unethical for the museum to accept duplicative awards and it would have to turn one down—a move that doesn’t look good no matter how well it’s handled.
“We need money to keep the lights on.” Granting agencies won’t fund items that should be paid for with the museum’s operating budget. Grant applications need to be unique and stand-alone in order to be competitive. If a museum can’t keep the lights on or meet other basic needs then the granting agency is going to view the museum as a financial risk. Grant funding is rarely an option if the museum is trying to acquire funding for basic functions; other avenues should be explored.
“We have a dozen or more ideas and will apply for all of them to see what sticks.” Having too many ideas is a wonderful problem to have, and problematic if the museum plans to pursue grant funding. Much like the first phrase “We’ll apply for anything we can get.”, this phrase reveals the museum has yet to go through a strategic process to focus and set it up for grant application success. Pursuing grant funding needs with a scattershot approach shows a lack of thought on the museum’s part, and the granting agencies will notice. Moreover, applying for any idea possible is unsustainable both in terms of application and award, as it would be irresponsible to try and implement multiple ideas at the same time simply because the funding came in.
I encourage you to pay attention to the phrases used when talking about grant funding. If you’re using any one of these four phrases, it’s symptomatic of a larger problem that needs to be addressed before you can successfully and sustainably apply for funding.