How Do You Create a Successful Grant Submission?

Aphrodite and Peter Tsairis observe applicant photos during the 2015 judging of the Alexia Foundation competition. Photo by Mike Davis

Aphrodite and Peter Tsairis observe applicant photos during the 2015 judging of the Alexia Foundation competition. Photo by Mike Davis

While there’s no way to create proposals that are guaranteed to earn you a grant, there are things you can do to increase the chances of making grants an important part of supporting and expanding your photographic life.

Consider your audience first. You are writing to a panel of judges who have extensive experience. They’ve probably never judged the particular grant for which you’re applying. So their eyes and minds will be fresh.

Wow them with how much you’ve thought about what can be accomplished if they give you this grant

And if the choice of judges is well informed, the judging panel will have different individual perspectives, preferences and taste but will favor similar broad-stroke aspects of that particular grant. It is their chemistry that makes each judging session unique.

So here is some advice on how to best prepare your submission to a judging panel. This advice comes from my years of helping scores of photographers produce bodies of work that received grants and other types of recognition, of judging many competitions and having chosen and moderated the past two years’ panels of Alexia Foundation Grant panels as the Alexia Chair at Syracuse University.

There are four broad aspects, questions, really, that you have to satisfy in the judges’ minds, hearts and eyes:

Is the subject engaging?
1. Is the subject matter relevant, important, significant, timely, fresh in approach and unique in perception? Is it something that’s not generally known? And is the subject matter one that the grant is designed to award?

Can you do it?
2. Is there evidence that you’re capable of producing a successful body of work? This is both about your abilities as a visual story teller and the scope of the proposal. If you’ve never done a project of this scope or if you’re proposing something too small or too large to accomplish, given the time frame of the grant, then you won’t get the nod. And you won’t receive a grant if the judges determine that your photography doesn’t meet the grants’ standards.

(It’s important to note that the Alexia Grants are judged equally for the proposal and the photography submitted.)

How are you going to do the project?
3. Make it clear to judges how you are going to accomplish the project. Where, when, who, what and how are you going to photograph. How does each thing you’ll photograph fit into the larger aspects of the proposal?

What will happen because of your project?
4. Just producing a body of work is no longer enough. There have to be clear outcomes and increasingly that means forming partnerships with other individuals and organizations to realize outcomes beyond simply publishing the work. The more considered, dynamic, significant and demonstrable your project and its outcomes are, the more likely you’ll receive a grant.

Structure of the proposal
And lastly, language and the form of the proposal are important. This approach grows directly from the questions above. First, the proposal is not about you; don’t use I more than two or three times in your proposal. Instead, write in a conversational form to the judges, tell them a story, inform them, answer their questions and surprise them with your thoughtfulness.

Most successful proposals start by telling a story that takes the judges to a setting and introduces them to it and the people who occupy that space in a way that creates mental images that elicit sounds, smells, sights and, in essence, produce an emotional response.

Then tell them why that setting is important and worthy of the grant. Put the setting or settings you’ve described into a context that judges will care about.

Then explain how you’ll produce the project. Bullet points work well for this, given that you only have about 750 words for the proposal.

And then tell them what will happen because of the grant. Explain its outcomes, your partnerships. Wow them with how much you’ve thought about what can be accomplished if they give you this grant.

Images you submit
Almost every Alexia Grant recipient has produced at least some images related to their proposed project. This falls under the heading of “Can you do it.” If you’re not showing work related to your proposal, it’ll be less clear to judges that you can accomplish the proposed project. Access and understanding are the biggest challenges in producing the calibre of work that is awarded and if you can show that you have access and understand the subject by showing images you’ve already made, that goes a long way toward showing that you can do the project.

Then it’s a balance of having produced enough work on the project to prove that you can do it but not so much that the judges are left feeling that the project is complete and therefore doesn’t need support. That’s part of the reason why it’s critical to clearly explain what you’re going to do with the time the grant will allow you to work on the project.

The Alexia Grant rules say you may submit up to 20 images but don’t feel like you have to submit 20. Fewer, better images can be more powerful if the level of imagery drops shy of 20.
Good luck and thank you for your interest.

The deadline for the Alexia Professional Grant is Jan. 31. Applications are currently being accepted. We will begin accepting Student Grant applications Feb. 1 and the student deadline is Mar. 3. Learn more here.

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