I spent some time writing this up for the NYC distribution list (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I posted it to the Burning Man Tribe on Tribe.net so I figured I'd edit it some more and cross-post one more time for more to enjoy.
I received all the money I asked for in my grant for the Bike With 2 Brains for Burning Man 2005 and I'm listed on the 2005 Funded Art Installations. I don't mean to sound like I'm bragging (although I must admit that I giggle every time I see my name on that page) but I keep getting requests from people asking to see my grant application so they can "see what a successful application looks like." I've been reluctant to hand it over because it lists the exact dollar amounts and I really don't think it'll do much good to look at it as it's not obvious what's important and what's not. So here's my advice ...
In general, have a rough plan for how the whole project will come together. At least know what you expect to be looking at when it's all done on the Playa and what it will be like to touch/see/experience it. You get grant money by having a solid plan from going from nothing to having a completed project. You don't just swagger into the BMorg offices, show your artist badge, and say you have an idea at which point they give you, say, $5,000, and then you go out and make something. Not to be so mocking, I think a lot of people think grants are based exclusively on how good their idea is -- as far as I know, they are based on a number of factors including how good their idea is, but to a large degree on how much planning they have already done.
Think of it this way: pretend you're going to do this project no matter what and figure out what it's going to be, how you're going to build it, what it's going to be made of, what's on the inside and outside, who is going to do what, how long is it going to take, and what things you can sacrifice if you run out of time. This is the kind of stuff that goes in the application.
Here's some other suggestions:
- On the grant application page, they ask you to answer specific questions ("Your proposal must include the following:"). Set them up as headings in your application.
- Fill out everything honestly and completely. This is a business proposal, not a stylish resume, but it's also for Burning Man. I got a little creative at times -- for instance, this is how I introduced the section about "Pertinence to the 2005 Theme:"Very few art projects can completely capture the Burning Man theme. For 2005, the theme of 'Psyche: the Conscious, the Subconscious and the Unconscious' is tangentially related to 'The Bike With 2 Brains.' To demonstrate this, I will attempt to use the theme terms in context as much as I can in the following paragraphs.
In other words, know your audience. I probably wouldn't have tried to be clever the same way if I was writing to a bunch of stuffy art investors. Since I was writing to Burners, I figured I could be a little creative, but I also knew I was asking for real money, so I was mostly straightforward with just a little wit. Remember: your mileage may vary.
- Explain your project like you know it in your head -- don't try to "save a surprise" for the grant staff to experience when they get to the Playa. That is, if your project's scale is designed to instill fear in the viewer because it is important that their emotional state is tense when they enter, then just say that. Don't guard the underlying ideas -- just explain how you think it will affect people and why. Assume they can keep a secret about it -- if you're that worried, throw in a bit of that creativity or just beg them not to tell anybody becuase it's supposed to be a surprise.
- Create and supply scale architectural drawings. Use Computer-Aided Design (CAD) software if you have to (I used CADintosh from Lemke Software, GmbH; it's a $30 CAD package for the Mac.) If you haven't used CAD before, it will seem very strange -- zooming, for instance, is done with the scroll wheel on the mouse. If that seems like too much trouble, or for simple drawings, you can get away with a line-art package like Adobe Illustrator or just the drawing tools in Microsoft Word. Prove that you have thought through the structure and how it will survive in the Playa environment (i.e. wind, rain, yahoos, no-MOOP, clean-up.)
- Figure out your budget. Use real prices and cite your sources. "$500 for lumber" is bad, "644 ft 2x4 material at $2.50 per 12ft board = 54 boards + 1 board scrap for $137.50 from Home Depot" is better. Avoid rounding off -- rounding up the $137.50 lumber example to $200 or $150 isn't such a good idea although $138 is probably fine. Use those round numbers for estimates. If you're going to have to buy stuff new, price it out at average market price -- sometimes you'll get a great deal, and sometimes you'll have to suck-it-up and pay more. I got soaked on the paint job which cost ten times more than what I expected because I didn't get a proper estimate beforehand.
And for the love of the Spaghetti Monster and all that is Noodly, don't start from some arbitrary number and work backwards. You may have an idea in your head -- figuring your project might cost a total of $2,000 or something -- but just start from the little numbers of all the parts and add it up to whatever it ends up being. Don't lie about the money to try and skim a little for yourself.
- Note your contingencies. What if your first-choice for transportation falls through? Will you be bringing your own welder and generator to make repairs? Will you be making duplicates of fragile parts or a more durable/less aesthetic replacement?
If you're prone to worrying like I am, this can drive you absolutely mad. Don't worry too much, but if you do think of something (or people ask) then jot those things down and at least do a little planning for some of the most likely and/or most disastrous ones.
Conveniently, the nightmare where you're assembling your project and you realize you forgot to wear any clothes isn't really an issue.
- In general, more detail is better.
I suspect it helped me to have used a lot of recycled materials -- half the items on my budget were $0 because I either already had the items or I planned to get them from scrap/garbage (although that 110-year-old water pipe did end up screwing me over). I think the grant team appreciates innovation as well -- using alternative energy sources is good, even if you note that you'll fall back to conventional sources if it's not viable.
If you make it look like your project is already underway -- that you've done enough research, you're creating models and mock-ups, and you can answer specific questions about how you're going to finish -- your chances are way better. If you have a pie-in-the-sky idea that you need $50,000 for and you've got no idea how to complete it, your chances are worse.