A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A GRANTS PANELIST
Bowed by the heat of August, and somewhat intimidated by the willowy and unspeakably beautiful models wafting into the elevator, matchsticks stemming out of stilettos, maybe a hundred or so per elevator car, I emerged, ego crushed, onto the tenth floor of 300 park avenue south where I would spend the next two days poring over literature grant applications at the New York State Council on the Arts, seeking coffee and people who looked, and thought and talked more or less like, well, me.
I spend a lot of time around grants, grants panels, grantmakers conferences. big, small, national, regional, family foundations as well as my own council grantmaking activities. At the end of the day, after every rating has been entered, every comment logged, every cookie eaten, there is always that sigh that rushes through the group that wishes the applicants could have done this better, or avoided doing that, we grumble about the bigger picture, the smaller pool of money, we long for more time to talk about what we just went through, call it a policy discussion, a debriefing or simply going out for drinks around the corner.
For those of you who want to surf on that collective sigh as one of the bright spots, one riding the crest of the next ratings sheet, here are my comments on this panel:
NUTS & BOLTS
To give you an idea of what an actual day of panel is like, I list a few of my own personal criteria. Why is this important? Panelists are human beings too, and the distinction in this case is that we have already spent hours reading and reviewing pages upon pages of grant applications and are about to confer the almighty rating to determine their funding status. Be nice to us.
- Care of panelists
- food: Fresh fruit, homemade cookies, lovely berries. Coffee available upon arrival.
- egrant interface: Wonky at first, who knew you had to send in an affiliation statement? I would have preferred having all applications and work sample materials available in one place. Not two screens. What about prescoring? That would save some time and provide a place to start from. It is also really interesting to see if panelists change their scores upon discussion.
- panel experience: In these literature panels, we are daytrippers, dipping our toes into poetry, unleashing flashes of philosophy, self deprecating humor, bookish, fierce, loving. We opened our first day with a reading of a poem by Jorge Valente entitled, “Song” followed by a metaphor by one fellow panelist about how being in the lobby of a modeling agency immersed among throngs of the most beautiful people on the planet reminded him of what Billy Joel said as he was standing next to Christie Brinkley, his ex wife and gorgeous person, “I feel like a slab of bacon.” Another voice piped in quickly, “But people love bacon!”
- number of applicants: 27
- amount of money to be granted: Unknown, but last year I hear it was about $960,000.00
WHAT CAN HELP YOU GET YOUR NEXT GRANT
The Most Common Mistakes
I think most of us are willing to fund an organization showing a deficit, possibly a string of them, as long as there is an explanation about it and they are thoughtful about describing their plans to address it.
We want to know your strategy for making choices. How are schools and artists chosen? Can you explain your curation process?
Are you kidding? This is a literature panel. You will not be punished for bad grammar, misspelling and typos. You will be crucified.
THINGS THAT MAKE A PANEL LOVE YOU
Care and feeding of writers and all their needs including laundering their linen. This is the philosophy of a small and dedicated organization, passionate to its dyed hair roots, serving up literature, at its very, loving best.
Be fearless and honest about stating your challenges. We will sooner sympathize and rally around a sinner than a whitewashed prayer. We appreciate honesty and actually see glimpses of growth in your challenge areas.
Project funding is rapidly sinking in the rearview mirror of the program funding roadster hugging the curves of economic development. I love how some groups embrace the new reality by being proactive in working with the big guns in establishing their internal capitalization structure, creating risk capital and pointing their navigators forward into a wider range of future partnerships.
Hmmm, that sounded really clunky, way too much jargon.
Let me say that in English: Be creative about making the new economic realities work for your bottom line.
SOLVE A REAL PROBLEM
Seize a problem and do something about it. Like a project that seeds a group of diverse interns in the white publishing industry. (Grumbling point: This application could have been more specific about the backgrounds of the interns).
What a political statement, an unapologetic shot across the bow of the publishing industry!
FROM THE WATERCOOLER
Looking back over my notes, these are the topics that kept coming up throughout our review. I think they are illuminating and can help guide your thinking as you write your next grant.
- EXPECTATIONS, UNEXPLORED POTENTIAL & INNOVATION: Expectations shift with every group. What is acceptable for a small group in a remote rural area is not acceptable for an organization immersed in urban density because of the difference in unexplored potential. So, is potential, unexplored or not, a criteria on the list? Going forward, what are you doing that is new and innovative? This is a benchmark question that only two or three groups answered successfully by stepping into the discomfort of being different and defining what success looks like, talks like and behaves like in their own particular universes. The key here is to create a set of finite local successes that not only address immediate problems but resonate deeply in the universe of human experience.
- MULTIYEAR FUNDING: How do you give and manage multiyear funding to organizations in flux and change?
- DIVERSITY, RACE & THE UNDERSERVED: This goes beyond the easily pencilled in categroies of white, black, hispanic and asian. How do you define these in your practice and community? Are the developmentally disabled, queer, aging, youth at risk, jail spouses, foster children, migrant workers, deaf and refugee populations included in your definition of diversity or underserved? aAre the underserved the same as marginalized? Is it about access and opportunity? Who are the gatekeepers?
TWO PERSONAL OBSERVATIONS
- There is great interest in the idea of reinvention. For example, Joyce Carol Oates reclaiming the gothic novel as a feminist novel, a feminist press reconfiguring women in pulp novels from the 50’s that were originally anti feminist in tone, indie presses reinventing the independent book store as an Amazon model of niche, curated ebook sites. This lead to the the question: How hard is it to reinvent oneself, to keep the verve and vibrant energy of more youthful years, in an organization for so many years?
- Great panelist comment about an idiosyncratic, yet successful, applicant: “They will never be world class, but they will be classy in their own world”
I think that people who need to have their passion for literature funded should start asking themselves it the things they do really, I mean really, deserve to exist. Clearly, people want literature to make life unapologetically rich, full and open to unexpected fullness.
Who doesn’t want that?
I hope that my punch list of observations, tips, hints at greatness and fiercely held preferences guide you in writing the great american novel of grant applications.
To your success!