How to be strategic when applying for funding

Author:   |   Date: 17/10/2015   |   Categories: Fundraising, Leadership, Strategic Planning

Many small to medium arts companies are facing a crisis,  the result of the government announced major changes to its arts funding policy, namely moving $104M from the Australia Council to the new ministerial “Excellence” fund. 

There is still a lot of shock and anger about this decision, and some hope that a new Minister for the Arts may address the concerns raised about the impact this has on the sector.

However, in the meantime arts companies across Australia are gearing up for the 1 December deadline for applications to the multi-year funding pool: an opportunity for ongoing operational funding, critical to their functioning and sustainability.

If you are in this situation it is easy to feel disempowered, frustrated and overwhelmed right now. As CEO or director of a company you might feel at a loss, just when your team is looking to you for guidance.  If you have struggled with funding in the past (and who hasn’t) you might be feeling hopeless that it is all too much, and simply have not got the energy to go in again.

You will also be trying to juggle the ongoing demands of your organisation whilst trying to make some space for preparing and re-writing yet another business plan and application for a funding body, in an ever increasing competitive framework.

If any of that sounds like you, I would love to offer you some support.  Based on my experience it is time for a bit of tough love, hard work and clear thinking.

Sort out your strategy

This is not the time to be all things to all people.  This is the time to work out who you are as an organisation, what are your priorities, and what are you out to achieve. 

Get ready to answer the hard questions about:

  • Your purpose (why do you do what you do)
  • Your audience (who do you do it for)
  • Your objectives (what are you trying to impact, change, develop)
  • Your business model (how do you do what you do)
  • Your revenue (what funds your model and is it sustainable)

Unlike most businesses, you are not driven by profitability.  However you are seeking sizeable investment from the Australian tax-payer community to develop artistic products, processes and people.  If you cannot succinctly say why, how and what you do AND what that achieves you will struggle to make a compelling business case for any audience.

Simplify your story

Once you have a clear sense of your strategy, now is time to communicate it to your audience of peers.  It is tempting to assume they know you and your work, but you cannot assume they know your organisation like you do.

You cannot assume anyone understands your strategies, your projects and outcomes unless you make it crystal clear.  

Take plenty of time to review your applications and test your messages with a diversity of audiences.  Use your board, your team, your colleagues (if possible) to test your ideas and your language.  Get feedback and make changes.  Throw out your darlings, don’t be defensive and leave your ego at the door.

This is probably about your organisation’s profitability and financial health for the next four years.  Do not leave this to the last moment, produce a confusing business case and assume it will all just magically be OK.

Start working on Plan B

Yes put an all out effort into making the best case you can for the 1 December deadline, but remember that unfortunately the odds are probably against you.  Only the top third or so of 500+ companies will get through the cut-off, and many will not.  Even if you are successful, we have seen just how tenuous government funding can be.  If you rely on government arts grants for more than 30% of your turnover you are probably at risk.

Do not wait for the decision to be made next year.  As soon as possible start working out what to do next.  What are your reserves? What are your commitments?  Who are your customers?  Who else can pay for what you do? What would your organisation look like if you had to earn 80-90% or more of your income or more from providing goods and services?  What would you need to start, keep or stop doing?

Support yourself in a safe space

If you are leading an organisation and applying for multi-year funding, the next few weeks are going to be stressful and exhausting.  Even the best prepared CEO and director will be faced with revising and writing complex documents, drawing input from a range of sources.  You may face questions and even criticisms from your team or board during this time about your decisions and strategies.  You may lose faith in yourself and those around you.  You will get tired and emotional. Trust me, I have been there.  It can be lonely and scary.

If you do nothing else, make sure you have someone with whom you can confide in and get the support you need.  Someone on your side, who understands what you are trying to do.  Have somewhere that you can vent if needed and listen to your problems and ideas.   Hopefully this place or person can also remind you of the big picture and bring you back on track.  You have all that you need to do the best you can. 

At the end of the day there will be winners and losers from this round of funding, just like there always is.    The decisions will be made and you will need to abide by the judges decisions.  Some organisations will change, some may merge, and others will close up shop.  

The best thing to do now is to do all that you can so that you say with sincerity that you tried your best with the resources that you have, because then there are no regrets at the end of the day.

Judith Bowtell has over 20 years’ experience in arts strategy and policy, in funding and cultural agencies, as well as leading small arts organisations.  If you want a advice on coaching, leadership development and strategic thinking, please contact us:

Albany Lane –.

If you would like to discuss coaching options with Albany Lane, please send an enquiry.


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