Friday, July 23, 2010

Giving Back

I'm a home body. I'm probably just a blink away from being a hermit. A couple of years ago I forced myself to make a change in my life. I got involved. This time I didn't do my customary tip-toe-in-with-great-caution-and-hesitation entry. I leaped. Head first. I became president of my local writer's organization--Bayou Writers' Group. What a learning experience that has been. Being prez has opened my eyes to many things, and offered some fantastic opportunities.

Without going into detail about all those wonderful opportunities, I want to share one thing--the main thing: giving back.

Last Wednesday, I gave away $120,000 dollars and determined who to give it to and exactly how much to give. That's a simplification. I served on a grant committee so I evaluated between 35 and 50 projects and deemed them worthy or not. I liken it to shopping.

If you've ever been shopping with me then you know I'm not good at it. I pick out something, walk around with it for 30 to 45 minutes while browsing, eventually put it back and head home. I don't spend money well--except in bookstores(new and used) and grocery stores. Serving on the Decentralized Art Funding Grants Review Panel stretched me long and taut. It actually hurt.
For a month, I've read grant applications, studied essays about specific projects, glanced over budgets (as if I knew what I was doing) then re-read essays. I'm showing pictures of the binders holding these grant proposals. Just look at them! Each panelist had TWO of these books to read through. I've never read so much passion in my life! And that made it even harder for me.

We evaluated each project on need and impact, administration and budget, planning and design and quality. We had to take a look at how many people the project would benefit, if the artists involved were professional and qualified, how the grant money would be spent. The panel meeting was open to the public. That meant anyone who had an interest in a specific grant application--the very grant writer!--could sit in the audience and listen to us discuss their organization, their essay, their passion (or lack thereof). We couldn't speak to them; they couldn't speak to us. (Whew!)

Several days leading up to the meeting, I woke up during the night with phrases from the essays flashing through my mind. On the Monday night before that Wednesday, I actually jumped out of bed, panicked, because I thought the following day was the meeting and I didn't feel prepared. I don't think I've ever participated in anything more stressful ... or more rewarding.

I learned things about my community that I didn't know. I got a glimpse into many organizations in my community that I didn't know existed. I learned that what I thought was just a fun weekend festival with good food and dancing was something a lot more important, and meaningful. I got to speak up for projects I really believed in. I came away with a sense of pride in my parish for all it has to offer and respect for all the people involved in these various activities. There are so many talented, professional people who work full time jobs and still find time (make time) to give back to the community.
I gained even more respect for the staff at Arts & Humanities Council of Southwest Louisiana because of all they do, their wonderful attitudes and knowledge...and because they never fail to smile and encourage. I thank them for giving me this priviledge and honor... and for letting me feel as if I've actually given something back. (Bayou Writers' Group has been the recipient of a grant or two during the past couple of years.)

If you ever have a chance to work with your arts council in any way, jump at it. You'll be so glad you did. You might even consider contacting them and asking for the opportunity to help. If you're a writer, editor, instructor, publisher, business owner ... they would welcome your time and expertise. They have a huge job. If I found my month of involvement stressful, what must they feel with all the budget cuts and lack of funds. They have to stay on top of things, and they don't do that by being slackers. These people really work on behalf of the arts.

If you write grants for your organization (or want to), a few tips: all panelists know about your organization, your project, is what they read in that grant application/proposal. Your essay needs to be thorough and paint a positive picture. If you're allowed to include evaluation sheets, thank yous or testimonials, a DVD, CD or color photographs of your project, by all means, do it. Those visuals can help tremendously. Typos are offensive. They make it appear as if you didn't care enough to proof so turn in a clean grant application. Get some fresh eyes to proof it for you. And by all means, somewhere in your essay, state why you want or need the money.

Grant writing has got to be as difficult (in my mind) as short story writing. The author has a limited amount of space to say a lot in a passionate way. In a nuteshell, my advice on writing a grant is . . . make every word count.


Carole said...

Wow, what a job. Sounds like you learned a lot. It also sounds like a lot of organizations have really benefitted. Very cool.

One of these days I am going to be a hermit and stick to it. And I like the way you shop. My husband is always happy that I hate to shop and buy the least amount that I have to, to get by.

Charles Gramlich said...

I've never enjoyed writing grants. It's a necessary evil in my business. I too have no problem spending money in bookstores but don't spend it elsewhere very well. I kind of like being a hermit. Lana and I call our place the Hermitage.

Angie Kay Dilmore said...

Very interesting post, Jess.

christa said...