Grant Games

I was talking to some musicians the other day who are interested in starting a small chamber group.  They were asking me about my experience starting a chamber orchestra and the resulting non profit.  In particular, they wanted to know about funding; how to go about it and where to find grants.  So I told them the honest truth; that since they would be a new organization it was doubtful they would qualify for grants, and most likely won’t for at least a few years.  I did explain there are two basic places to look for grants: the government (local, state, and federal) and through private philanthropic foundations.  

All of them usually have so many requirements and restrictions that honestly, they just aren’t worth it.  The big money grants are usually decided in advance where and who they will go to and the smaller grants (under $5,000) are more trouble than they are worth.  In the end, who you know and how you conduct yourself are far more important than what you write on grant applications.

I’ll give you an example, when I was looking into applying for a grant from the State of Maryland it would have cost the organization more money to implement the necessary requirements than the grant was worth, not to mention it would start to push the orchestra in a direction it didn’t want to go.  But I was under the impression that non profits were supposed to apply for grants so started into the process.  I got about half way through reading the paperwork and decided it was time for a break. 

While out on a walk I ran into a local businessman I knew casually, his name was Ben.  I chatted with Ben for around 20 minuets about the orchestra, what it was doing for the county, and our goals. I also talked to him about my time in the conservatory, his business, and his appreciation for music. I then went into the Maryland State Arts Council grant application I was filling out. What I didn’t know at that time was that Ben also sat on the executive board for the local county arts council. 

At that point he looked at me and told me about his position on the board and to forget about the state arts council grant.  He liked what I had to say and told me he would talk to the other members on the local county arts council executive board to see what they could do.  Ben called the next day to say that the orchestra just received a grant, and for more money than the state grant I was applying for.  He said our conversation did more to convince him that the money would be well spent than reading any written proposal.  I did need to send off a one page synopsis of the orchestra and its activities for official purposes as well as non profit status documentation, etc., but that was all. 

The best part was that I didn’t need to spend all of the extra time, effort, and organizational money to make sure the “requirement” plates were all spinning at once as mandated by the state grant.  Instead, I was able to use the time to find corporate, business, and private donors and to sell tickets.  In turn, the grant money was put to good use; it allowed me to pay the musicians a higher than planned wage, hire a professional announcer, and keep the ticket prices down. 

Sadly, Ben has passed away since that time but his common sense approach to determine where grant money should go and his honest appreciation for all types of music is something I will never forget.  Sometimes the most important things we learn in life have absolutely nothing to do with formal “education” or conventional wisdom, but from simply interacting with others.

I invite you to return tomorrow where we’ll explore some further topics in the world of grants.


About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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