A cast photo from the Theatre 29 Summer Youth Theater Production of "Disney's Aladdin Jr."
Grant writing and seeking is a form of fundraising but different than sponsorships, direct donations, underwriting or events. I hope this article can both introduce grant-writing to those who may not be familiar with it, and also to facilitate knowledge and thoughts amongst members about how grant writing might be unique in California community theatre.
California Community Theatre members were asked to share their experience and practice of seeking grant funding for their theatres. Results of the survey are documented in graph, quotes, and list form here.
Does your theatre apply for grants for funding?
If your theatre receives funding for grants, are the grants for
operational purposes, or for specific projects?
Types of Projects Grant Money Has Funded for California Community Theatres:
Most grantors in our area will fund only specific projects - or capital items
Summer Youth Program
We try to provide a touring children’s show once per year, & we ask for a grant to cover its costs
Original play for school performances
Costume inventory system
Gay heritage productions
Who is responsible for grant writing at your organization?
Professional grant writer
Board Member/Board President
"The quote "you get what you pay for" truly applies to grant writers. There are some great ones around, and yes, you will a fee for their expertise, but it is worth every penny. You will NOT get the substantial amount of funding your organization needs by trying to do it yourself."
Where do you find grant opportunities?
Typically locally - although there are federal grants available
Local foundation, which does a very good job of connecting funders and organizations
Online and through networking with board members and others
"Because we are an LGBT theatre company, grant opportunities are extremely limited. We are constantly searching for grant sources."
Have certain aspects of your programming changed in any way, based on your knowledge of grant opportunities that are available, and the priorities of funders?
Yes, Our Summer Youth Theater Program
No, our programming hasn't changed, we remain committed to our Mission Statement. But the operations of our Board are being modified and streamlined to attract better funding
No, except to make the childrens’ show available
I push back on supporters who want us to take on new projects because there is grant money available and I work HARD to find grant money for the things we are already doing (or wanting to do). It is really important to be mission focused when thinking about grant applications
If you receive grant funding, do you typically receive funding from the same source regularly? If so, have there been changes to the amount you are receiving in the past five years?
Same sources, yes, changes
We have received grants from the same two sources several times
We do receive funding from the same sources with regularity; we also reach out to new sources each year. Our grantors have been steady in the amount they award in the last five years
Here is a picture of the Ferndale Repertory Theatre's women's bathroom. Thanks to a grant from a local organization (who prefers to remain anonymous) we no longer have to hold our intermissions because of a line at the women's bathroom. We remodeled the women's room in 2015, and with a second grant from the same organization did the men's room in 2016. Why do we, a live theatre, have pictures of Rudolph Valentino? because there was a period of time when this building was a movie theatre.So...go write those grants! I wish you much success! -Ferndale Repertory Theatre
A Few Things to Think About When It Comes to Community Theatre and Grants:
Community theatres may not qualify or be considered for national funding opportunities, such as the NEA. Community theatres may not even often stand out amongst state-wide funders. But perhaps you have a local arts council or smaller foundation that is familiar with your organization and interested in the value your project presents (because they likely have the same, locally-centered, community-driven goals).
"It is very difficult to identify and get grants for a small theater in a small town".
Like everything, it's often about who you know. Do you have a personal connection to a foundation at the local level who you might arrange a meeting with? Better yet, is there someone already familiar with your theatre (parent or family friend of a child in your youth program, patron, board member connection) who may work for or know someone who works for a group that provides funding? The closer you are to being able to schedule an in-person meeting or to solidify a funder's existing knowledge of your theatre, the better your chances for being rewarded with a grant opportunity. Think outside the box on those connections, and if even you get there via a 'friend of a friend,' human contact with an individual might be your key.
"The first substantial grant we received was for an upgraded lighting system and a new point of sale system."
You may be encouraged or tempted to seek opportunities that are aligned with the foundations. If you are prepared with the resources and personnel to take on a new project outside of your normal programming or operations, what a great opportunity! But for many community theatres, it may not be practical to, for example, begin a touring school performance program, with the hopes of obtaining a single grant to support it. However, there is always an opportunity to think creatively about what you're already doing and how it matches with the priorities of a foundation or grantor. If you know a local foundation or arts council, for example, is offering a grant aimed at supporting a cultural diversity project, perhaps that is an opportunity for your theatre to propose a production with a diversity theme you may have not had an opportunity to produce before; with grant funding, you may even consider incorporating an educational component aligned with themes from the show to encourage audience engagement, a learning opportunity, and a collaboration. Keeping in mind the additional resources you may need to carry through these projects, this can be a wonderful chance to flesh out an existing part of your existing program.
"I think it is very dangerous for an arts organization to adjust it's programming focus just because it thinks it might get funding for this or that new programming. From time to time it is suggested to me that we develop education programming that would fit the criteria of the now more robust CAC grants. Nice idea, but then I am asking for money to support a whole new program at FRT that is not part of our current focus, and I am going to have to do the hiring, program development and reporting on that new venture. None of that is going to help my core/mission driven task of presenting well produced productions each season. It is difficult to find any foundation that will support "operating" or "overhead" which is precisely what most of us really need. Money to pay salaries and keep the lights on is what is hardest to find."
Finding the 'link' between your programs ensuring the grant you are after supports a program or an aspect of it, rather than seeking grants that require you to expand your workload to create something new. and the programs funders in your area are passionate about can be wise. If there are opportunities for funding for youth or at-risk programs, consider how your existing drama camp or class at your theatre can provide a benefit or outlet for those individuals in need. Is there a grant opening centered on elderly or senior citizens, and does your theatre have long-standing volunteers of that demographic who are intrinsic to your theatre and its mission? Again, the key may be to connect the dots between grant opportunities and your current programming
"Understanding the foundation or individual you are applying to so that you make sure that you are asking the right grantor to support the right project. In our case I think a 40 year history in the community is helpful to being awarded grants. We make sure grantors know that we have weathered the occasional storm and have never closed our doors. Record keeping and reporting are also very important. Grantors want to know that you reliably spend the money on the project you are requesting it for. When we are reaching out to a local foundation our board members are helpful in developing relationships with the people who make granting decisions. Often they give me information or insight that helps me to craft the grant in a way that is most likely to succeed."
Collaborations can be great opportunities for multiple organizations. Perhaps there is another non-profit group in your area with whom you can partner on a theatrical program or project. A grant could potentially help give you a chance to take a risk with a new project, strengthen opportunities for your existing programs, and introduce you to new constituents.
Have your financials in order and show that you are a solid organization that funders can have confidence in giving to.
What do you believe is 'key' to being rewarded a grant opportunity?
Organization - meaning, proper bookkeeping, a written strategic plan, a needs list and proof that your board is contributing
Being very specific as to where the funds are going and what benefits they bring to the community
Finding the right grant for your specific organization/program
Listing of Grant Resources or Opportunities in California
*Please note this list comes from a recent online search (as of September, 2016). Please check each site for details and current information. If anything you know about is missing, feel free to let us know!
Your Local (City or County) Arts Commission or Council may not only provide the grant funding opportunities, but are also great resources for workshops and grant databases, etc. (It's not a bad idea to get to know these folks in general, for other reasons than grant-seeking).