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Fiscal Sponsorship

What is it?

Many grants only offer funding through non-profit organizations and cannot fund individuals or groups without non-profit status. Fiscal Sponsorship is an agreement with a non-profit organization, in which, for a fee, they receive grant funding for the artist. Ideally the relationship exceeds beyond just the financial. The non-profit often has been operating longer in the geographic area and has insight to offer in regard to funding opportunities. They also often help to review grants, obtain insurance and write checks to performers, staff, and personnel at the end of the project.


Many beginning performance makers run the finances through their own account. This can cause muddiness and messiness in the books. A fiscal sponsor runs all income and expenses through their books, allowing the artist to avoid a complex tax situation.


When seeking an organization for fiscal sponsorship, it is ideal to find one with a parallel mission to your own group. Non-profits have a mission statement. Checking whether their mission statement aligns with your own is a good place to start. If a dance artist seeks sponsorship with a gallery, they are unlikely to be a strong support in sending the artist to appropriate funding opportunities. Many fiscal sponsors also make their mailing list available to support projects. If the focus of the organization is not aligned, this advantage will be lost. On the other hand, many non-profits have established long-term relationships with funders. They can give clear information about what a given funder tends to look for and help shape your grant for success.

A typical fee for a fiscal sponsor is 8-12%.



Finding Them

The easiest way to begin researching grants is with a professional organization. Many geographically focused networking groups exist that have a centralized databank of information on funding opportunities in a given field. Examples of these organizations include Dancer's Group in the Bay Area, Fractured Atlas in New York and Boston Dance Alliance in Boston. Many of these information and networking hubs also offer fiscal sponsorship services. They're a good choice, especially if the artist is new to a given locale.


Once you've researched funding sources for your discipline, the next place to look is for funding possibilities specific to any special interest a given project addresses. Anatomy of a Cloud was a piece I presented about Alzheimer's disease. There were a number of grants we applied for in collaboration with the local Alzheimer's Organization that would otherwise have been unavailable to us. Pieces about war may be open to collaboration with veterans associations. A piece about food may have possibilities in the realm of health education. A piece dealing with identity of an ethnic group or sexual orientation opens up a whole other quadrant of funding possibilities. If there is an educational component to the project (performances or classes in schools or community centers) or if the project comes out of direct involvement with a population (based on their stories or performed by them) other grants become accessible.


Narrowing Down
Writing a grant takes a good deal of time and energy. To apply for grants that one is unlikely to receive is a waste of precious energy and time resources. Once a list of possible funders has been gathered, the trimming must begin.

Every grant lists eligibility requirements and funding priorities. Look at these! If the county you live in is not mentioned, there's no need to apply! If arts are not a priority or the discipline you're working in is not listed, there is no need to apply. If you do performance of highly experimental audience interactive multimedia body art, and the grant is for traditional European court dances, don't apply! If it fits the specified area where you live, and the priorities seem to match... it is time to do some more research.


The priorities may list projects with a community involvement or educational component. This is a place where I recommend pausing and reflecting. I don't counsel greatly shaping a project based on a grant. You have your vision as an artist and you are primarily working in service to that vision. However, for some, taking an afternoon or more to share creative process or performance with students may be a pleasurable activity. You may choose to do some more research as to the type and scope of community projects the group has funded in the past and make informed decisions from there.


If you have a question about eligibility or the grant priorities, call and ask! This also gives your an opportunity to form a personal relationship. All foundations and organizations have people running them. That means they are based on relationships. With that first call, the funder can begin to associate a voice and identity to your project that cannot be communicated through words on paper alone.


Before you make the call, do your research! See if your question can be answered from their web site. They have gone through a lot of trouble to put the information on there. While it is great to form relationship with a well researched and thoughtful inquiry, to attempt to do so with a question that's answered in bold on their home page can be a mistake.


Another part of research is perusing past funded projects. Do they fund emerging artists, established companies, collaborations? Do they fund strictly high budget proscenium endeavors or do they prioritize experimentation and unconventional venues? Do they give small grants of $1-5,000 or do they only fund projects of $25,000 or more? Do they like to be the primary funders or do they tend to support projects with primary funding already secured elsewhere? These and related questions will help guide you in what projects to apply for and how to frame your proposals.


Getting to It

Now that you have gathered a list of grants (and perhaps a list of second priority grants which you'll try for if you have time), it's time to get organized.


Make a timeline.

This calendar should have all your deadlines, including letters of intent and application deadlines. If you are a last minute type, you may choose to give yourself additional deadlines. For example, to have your work sample ready and uploaded by 2 weeks ahead of time, or to have a draft done and passed to your fiscal sponsor for feedback 2 weeks out.


If the grant requires professional references or letters, make sure you've given the people writing them plenty of time and instructions on how to get it done. Often the people who will write you the best letters are quite busy. Consider giving them bullet points about what information you'd like in the letter that is relevant to the application.


Each of us is unique in how timelines affect our output capacity. If you know you're better under pressure, you could have an earlier deadline you agree on with your fiscal sponsorship or a collaborator to make yourself accountable. Last minute problems happen and it’s a shame to lose good work because of a missed deadline. (This calendar could be combined with an overall production calendar we'll talk about later).


Follow the Directions.
Follow them exactly. If it says send VHS and not a DVD, do it. They have a reason for it. If it asks you to write up the work sample info on three different index cards, do it! If it says use a particular font and particular margins, do it! These panels are often looking through hundreds of applications. It takes a long time, and is a lot of work. If there is any reason to disqualify an application, they may well take it. In some cases, the person who receives the application may disqualify it before it even reaches the panel's eyes. There's no excuse for doing all the hard work of applying and being disqualified because you can't follow directions.

Work Samples

Your work sample is important. The first thing is to make sure it works. I was on a grant panel for Theatre Bay Area CA$H Grant. They recommended VHS tapes. Some people sent DVDs, and a number of them didn't work on the DVD player. I happened to have a laptop and the panelists were kind enough to wait and see if it would work on it. Some of them did, and some of them didn't. We did not fund anything without a viewable and interesting work sample.


It is generally recommended not to show a highly edited demo with driving music and two minutes of your best most exciting moments. These read like pop culture propaganda. Funders typically have seen a great deal of art, at least of work samples, and want to support art. Give them something long enough that they can see your aesthetic sensibility rather than your video-editing prowess. If the work sample has some aspect that relates to the project you're applying for, this is helpful. That could be aesthetic similarities or work that is made with the same collaborators.


The Narrative

The narrative often forces the artist to start forming, clarifying, and putting into words the ideas that will form the backbone of the project. Writing a narrative may also be helpful for catalyzing dialogue between collaborators.


The first paragraph should include what you’re going to do, when, where, and for how long, and how much you are requesting from this funder. In the Theatre Bay Area panel we did not fund any projects that did not have a clearly stated performance date. Even if the date changes after the grant is received, having at least one performance date set shows your ability to plan and your commitment to actualizing the vision.


Other organizing information should include the central idea or image of the piece and the genesis of the project. Why is it pertinent to the artist, the times, the place? Is there something that makes it unique, important, or time sensitive? Who will be the audience, how many of them, and how will it impact them? What is the applying artist’s history of success? What resources does the artist already have to put towards the project, and what is needed? What is the mission statement and history of the artist or company?


The narrative is the applicant’s opportunity to shine through the crowd (and there is always a crowd). On the panel I worked on(for Theatre Bay Area), I was excited to find applicants that were articulate and inspired in writing about their work. If an artist can’t speak clearly about their work or intention and isn’t fired up by it, why should I be? The use of descriptive, textured, and action words help give life to an application. These should be skillfully placed throughout your description. Make sure the mission statement is one that quickens and inspires rather than just describing your work.



Grant funders typically like to see a diversity of funding sources. All grants you are applying for and any additional income sources (Kickstarter, fundraising letters, ticket sales) should be include in the the income section. Make it clear which grants are confirmed and which you’re waiting to hear back from.


They also like to see that your costs are reasonably accurate. Use real numbers. Include any In-kind contributions (services or items offered as a donation) with their economic value. That means if you or an intern are doing 20 hours a week of unpaid labor, you can include this in your budget. If you are paying someone in massage sessions, they are being paid the value of those massage sessions. Art is expensive. Be realistic with your costs.


In the income section put paid admissions and sales income in a separate section from the grants and contributions. Put the grant you are applying for in its own budget line. You can also separate out personnel and non-personnel expenses. Non-personne expenses include: production costs (costume, prop, lighting rental, etc), space rental, materials, publicity, insurance, and anything else specific to the project. In the project notes, go into detail about how the numbers add up. Include artist fees and hourly wages as well as a detailed breakdown of marketing costs in the expense section and and a breakdown of ticket cost and numbers in the income section. Transparency in budget mathematics is helpful.


In a balanced budget, the project net should be at or close to zero. All administrative and artistic fees should be included in the budget. Even though we all know directors often pay themselves based on whatever is left over, the budget should reflect your clearly thought out plan.


Reporting Back

Your funders have invested in you. They want to be kept up to date on your progress. Most funders require a report at the end of the project. Don’t let this be your first contact with them since funding. Invite them to the show with free tickets. Meet them in person before or after the show to thank them. Send them copies of press and testimonials with the report. Past funders are likely to be future funders if the relationship is cultivated and tended to.


Fundraising Events

Organizing fundraising events can be a great success or a great disaster. I have heard of fundraisers that lose money instead of making it because they overspend on the venue or other expenses. 


Keep expenses low. Whenever possible, hold your fundraiser at a free venue. Many bars will host fundraisers for free in exchange for the bar tab. Program ads can also be bartering potential for a space. If your event is a party and you have a big house or yard, hold it there, adding a personal touch to the event. Often you can find a place to donate drinks, chocolates, and hors d’ouvres. This may be in exchange for putting their business cards out at your event or for a thank you or an ad in the program. For Anatomy of a Cloud we had the printing of a large fancy program donated, which meant we had a lot of space we could sell or trade for ads. Many supermarkets (e.g. Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods) have programs through which they support community events. Just make sure you plan far enough in advance.


Have an auction or raffle. People love to donate goods and services to these. It shows they support the arts and it helps them to reach a new audience. Many people have things and time they can offer, but not much money. This gives them a way to support you. If you find you have people donating to many of the same thing (massage, a meal at a restaurant) you may inquire whether you could use their donation towards payment of one of your technicians, staff, or performers or to support yourself as the stress builds at production time. See if someone can support you by donating their time to organize the auction or some other aspect of the fundraiser.


If you decide to have a performance, I recommend mostly having others perform. Doing a performance to help pay for a performance can feel circular. It feels less so if other people are doing the work and creating the fundraiser as a community endeavor. Musicians can be good in this regard.


The performance and silent auction for Anatomy of a Cloud was a huge success except that I was exhausted by the end of it. It  felt like I had produced a whole other performance. I suggest planning well and sending out an email, but avoid press releases and postcards and all the things you’re already doing for your show. The buzz can build towards the performance, but it’s not worthwhile to burn yourself out on the show by producing the fundraiser that’s supposed to support the show.

Do make a special invitation to past funders.

Percentage Days.

This is a pretty low impact method. Some restaurants and stores will let you set up a day or a part of a day during which they give a percentage of their sales towards your project. I have never done this, but it seems like a very low risk effort.

Individual Donors

Whether your approach is a fundraising letter, Kickstarter, or some other platform, the main advice I have here is “Don’t be shy!” You are not begging or asking for something for nothing. You are offering a valuable service to the community. It is a service that many value and would like to participate in themselves, but have not created a life where that is possible. Providing an opportunity for them to contribute makes it possible for them to get involved. Beyond that, you are offering them exposure to a public in a positive light. Always approach potential sponsors and donors with the sense that you are bringing them an opportunity.


All too often I see artists who seem to be apologizing as they ask for support. Perhaps this stems from the American assumption that we should all be self-sufficient cowboys, able to do it all alone. Art has never been a profitable business. It has always been supported by kings and benefactors. There is no shame in asking for support for this important social service.


An Important Detour Rant

This is for any artists who are dealing with the regularly occurring crisis of questioning the value of their work. Your work is valuable. Most of the artists I know are art monks. They work another job or three to support their art making, which they do tirelessly. They sacrifice much of their social life and the typical forms of popular entertainment to their art. The money they have left over they put back into further training or supplies. Many of them choose art over a family life. In this culture in particular, it is a path that you take, not because of selfishness, but because the artist’s compulsion gives her little choice.


It is not the artist’s job to decide whether what they do is good or valuable. This thinking will only get in the way of their real job, that of creating. There are countless jobs that result in what is clearly destructive to human life. People work in munitions factories and in labs creating toxic chemicals that will go into our foods. People foreclose on homes and create ads selling plastic war toys. They make a good deal of money for these things. The work artists are doing typically asks their audience to reflect or to look differently. It is typically not intentionally violent towards others wellbeing. Artists typically receive very little compensation and continue based on a determination that makes them blind or impervious to their sacrifices.


So, please, know that you are of service. Even if I hate your art, you are of service. Please approach all fundraising ventures with this in mind and do it feeling great about the exchange you are offering.


Kickstarter, Indie Go-Go, Pay Pal

Kickstarter, Indie Go-go, and other new on-line fundraising tools have proven very successful. These are web sites that, for a small percentage, offer a fundraising platform that allows you to post videos, pictures, updates, and give thank you gifts, in exchange for people’s contributions. On Kickstarter the money is only received if the goal is reached. On Indie Go-go the money is received regardless, but if the goal isn’t reached a larger percentage is taken. These platforms are quite popular now. Which means potential funders are encountering more fundraisers than they used to. The campaigns that are quite successful are often very personal and regular effort is put into promoting them.


Have a good video. All the information should be on the video. Many people will not read the narrative. Often, when posted to facebook and other social networks, the video will appear in the feed. If people cannot understand your project or can't get excited about it from the video alone you will need to do a great deal more work to get your funding.


It is best to have a few big money backers lined up at the beginning before you go public. If people see that the project has a good leap towards success, they are more excited to get involved. Monkey-see-monkey-do phenomenon suggests that having more large backers at the beginning may make people more likely to give in larger amounts.


We did a Kickstarter for the E|MERGE residency at Earthdance this year. It was successful, yet we made a number of mistakes. With three years worth of artists supporting us, and with their networks of connection, I was sure it would be easy. The video was abstract. I thought it had been changed to have a voice-over that explained the project in more detail, but I never checked. The last day, I found out it was never changed. I’m sure this is why we had to push so far at the end. The Kickstarter was also very close in time to a fundraiser gala event and an end of the year fundraising letter. This overtaxed Earthdance’s network of funders. Fortunately, in the absence of support from Earthdance's network, we were able to dredge up the donations we needed from the personal networks of the producers and artists involved in the project. It would have been a better fundraiser to do in Spring or Summer.


We also did very little outreach until the crunch time at the end. What I found worked was when I framed my outreach as a request for a project that was important to me, rather than a project I was producing at a larger institution. People tend to support each other more than supporting ideas in this day and age. So send personal appeals to the people who care about you and send appeals that speak to the uniqueness or the importance of the project to more anonymous contexts.


Thank You Notes.

As I’ve mentioned a few times, relationship is everything in this game. Whether you received donations through an event, on-line platform, or fundraising letter, take the time to thank your donors. If they feel appreciated and like they’ve participated in making something special happen, they are likely to donate again in the future. If they feel like you took the money and split, they are unlikely to return.

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.