By Carlyn Hammons
AASLH Individual Member since 2004
Program Specialist, Texas Historical Commission, Austin, TX

Do you need to know how to get started applying for grants? The first thing to realize is that simply having a need—no matter how great—usually isn’t enough to secure grant funds. Applying for grants out of desperation will almost always be futile, even if your organization has great heart and greater intentions. When you ask a grant maker for funding, what you’re really asking them to do is invest in your organization. It’s up to you to prove that you’re a worthy investment. That means demonstrating a clear sense of mission, reliable organizational performance, responsible fiscal management, knowledge of professional standards, and a well-informed strategic plan.

That brings us to the second thing you need to know about grants—there really is no such thing as “free” money. Grants will mean more work for your organization, not less. Just as with any program you develop, a successful grants program will require an investment of time and manpower. Make sure you’ve got a team that’s able to commit to a multitude of grant-related tasks, including prospect research, proposal development, response tracking, project reporting, and budget management.

Does your organization have what it takes to be a successful applicant? Sarah Brophy’s Is Your Museum Grant-Ready?: Assessing Your Organization’s Potential for Funding (AltaMira Press, 2005) can help you decide. It belongs on every museum’s reference shelf. As a bonus, the author’s made one of the checklists available for free on her website.

Once you’re satisfied that you’re ready to work on your first proposal, follow these tips for improving your odds for success:

Start small.
Identify a small project with well‐defined objectives for your first grant proposal. Choosing something
that your organization can easily accomplish without overburdening its resources will help establish a
good track record.

Do your research.
Take time to learn how each potential funding entity is set up, how they distribute their funds, the type
of funds they give, and their funding priorities. You’re looking for those that are a good fit with your
organization’s mission and your particular project’s objectives.

Make contact early.
Once your research uncovers a grant program that you think will be a good fit, call the funder to confirm
it before you begin working on your proposal. A conversation with the program officer early in the
process will ensure that you develop a proposal that most closely aligns with the funder’s current goals.

Follow the directions.
That may sound obvious, but you’d be surprised how many proposals are passed over because the
applicant failed to follow instructions.

Solicit feedback.
Get at least three people to review your proposal for clarity and effectiveness. At least one of the
reviewers should be someone who has no previous knowledge of your project.

Triple check your budget.
Numbers that don’t add up are one of the most common proposal mistakes, as is a budget that doesn’t
align with the project narrative. Keep in mind that your first grant proposal will likely take you longer than average to prepare—and that the return will likely be modest—but you’ll be laying the groundwork for greater successes.

Learn more about building a successful grants program by utilizing the free orientation sessions, training
courses, and online tutorials offered by the Foundation Center.