Getting Grants for Your Chorus

Three funders share their do’s and don’ts for successful grant applications.


Our Panel

Jessica Deljouravesh is the popular and world music officer at the Ontario Arts Council, which supports and provides public funding for the arts throughout the Canadian province of Ontario.
Karen Gahl-Mills is the CEO and executive director of Cuyahoga Arts & Culture, the local public funder of arts and culture in Cleveland, Ohio.
Reuben Roqueñi is a program officer in the performing arts program at the Bay Area’s William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Public funders, foundations, and other grantmaking organizations are key sources of financial support – but getting started on the application process can be intimidating. In a conversation with Chorus America’s vice president of services and COO Mitch Menchaca (himself a former grantmaker), a panel of people currently working in the field shared their feedback on how choruses can set themselves up for success.


MM: Let’s start with the key aspects of a successful grant application. What are you looking for right off the bat?

K G-M: A successful application should answer the questions “Why are you asking us?” and “Why are you asking us right now?” It should also follow any stated guidelines that the funder has published. We are a public agency, so we have a prescribed process and we are very clear about what our criteria are. Many funders are the same way. So ask for a project that fits into their bucket; don’t ask for something that is outside the scope of what an organization does. Make sure you’ve done your homework.

JD: Back up what you’re saying in the application. If you are doing a performance and have projected certain audience numbers, refer to past successes of attracting certain size audiences. If you’re increasing that, explain your plans to achieve the increase. Give your reasoning and explain your thinking around how you are approaching your project.

RR: One of the first things that I look at is the organization’s niche within the community and who they serve. Then I look at the project and how compelling it is—part of that is taking a look at work samples to get a good sense of what the organization’s ability is to pull the project off. Then I get into the narrative. Some of my peers go straight to the budget, but I tend to save that for last.

MM: How can a potential applicant begin a relationship with a grantmaking organization or program officer? Are there steps you recommend?

K G-M: As a public agency, it’s our job to talk to our grantees. We actually call them our “cultural partners” because we really do think of our funding as a relationship between our organization and the nonprofit organization. We want you to have a strong working relationship with someone on our staff. Not every funder is like that. Some try to be a little more invisible. As a public agency we can’t do that, but we also don’t operate our grantmaking that way. I’m sure many of my colleagues are like us when it comes to wanting to have a relationship.

panel collage
Panel (from left): Jessica Deljouravesh, Karen Gahl-Mills, Reuben Roqueñi.

Choruses and all the wonderful people who are involved with them should think about foundations not just as big faceless behemoths, but rather as collections of people who really want to help support their work. Then nurture that relationship just like you would any other donor relationship.

JD: It is always helpful if an organization looks through some materials first so that they’re not coming in blind. Even if you didn’t understand every part of an application, having read through it means that we can have a much more fruitful conversation when we do get on the phone. Also, signing up for newsletters, following on social media, or anything you can do to connect with a funder means that you’ll be informed about any new requirements or programs.

RR: Take a look at who some of the funder’s previous grantees are—maybe you have a peer organization in the field that’s already received funding. You could ask them about what their relationship looks like and who they work with at the foundation.

If you are able to make a connection, you have to have your elevator speech ready. Just be very straightforward and provide a brief overview, maybe ask in person if that’s something the funder might be interested in. Another thing I want to add—it might not be the program officer or the program director who opens the door for you. It might be a board member, or somebody that has some kind of donor relationship to the foundation. Just look for that pathway in.

MM: I think it’s common to feel fear about the financials. How can choruses present their numbers so that they give a complete picture of their organization or their project?

KG-M: Make sure the numbers match the words. If you describe your financial situation and saying that everything is rosy, and then you give a financial statement that shows three years of increasingly large deficits, you have now produced a pretty healthy level of skepticism on the part of the program officer or the grant panelist. They might wonder whether you actually understand what your financial standing is or whether you are trying to cover something up. If you tell us what’s going on and you show us you have a plan for fixing the problem, we have a lot more confidence in you than if you show us a problem and don’t talk about a solution.

Where Are Choruses Getting Their Support From?

Our annual Chorus Operations Survey Report (COSR) collects data about how choruses finance their activities. According to the most recent COSR, 11% of choruses reported that their budgets are supported by government grants, 18% said they were funded by foundational grants, and 5% said they received support from business and corporate philanthropy. Access the full report at

RR: One of the first things that I look at in terms of financials is whether an organization is up to date with the last fiscal year. Not being up to date with the last fiscal year is problematic. I also want to know who else is providing support. A broad base of support is always preferable, so we really want to see what kind of existing investment there is from the broader community of funders and donors.

JD: There’s definitely a false expectation among nonprofits that everyone is going to grow, and organizations put a lot of pressure on themselves to do that. That’s not what funders are necessarily looking for— that’s not a very realistic model for most organizations. They’re looking for you doing what you do and doing it well.

MM: Community is becoming an increasingly important concept for arts organizations. What are funders looking to see when they ask about community impact?

KG-M: At our organization, we do not impose a definition of community. We ask organizations to tell us who they feel is part of their community, and we also ask organizations to describe how they are doing their work in service to the community. Some of that is their programming and concerts. Some of that is recruiting new members of the chorus from the community. Some of that is work that might happen after school or in other kinds of programs.

I think we all know that the modes of participation in arts and culture have been changing radically and rapidly over the past few years. Folks are less interested in sitting in the audience to watch and more interested in opportunities to make and learn. Frankly, that’s a great opportunity for volunteer choruses especially.

JD: We talk a lot about who is receiving the impact. Your choir members themselves could be part of that group. Maybe there’s a younger assistant conductor who is growing artistically through your organization. The impact could also be looking outward at audiences or other collaborators, whether they are arts organizations or non-arts groups. We’re trying to encourage organizations to examine themselves and see how they can be more inclusive.

RR: In terms of trying to determine who your community might be, I recommend starting close to home. Look at who the leadership is, what the history of the organization is, who the participants are, who the board members are, and then, of course, who the audiences are. Think about it in terms of what’s happening in your own house, in your own backyard, and then think about it in terms of your neighborhood.

MM: Speaking of impact, when it comes to measurement, what are some particularly innovative or effective ways that organizations can demonstrate their project’s impact?

JD: As a program officer, I certainly want to hear all the qualitative stories, but as an administrator, I also want to know that the funds that we’ve given to a specific group were used responsibly for what they were intended. Often I get final reports that are really long, almost as long as the application. Some of what’s included is exciting, but what I need to spend the most time on are things like the budget and the numbers. Those are the measurements that filter into the greater picture of how we are assessing things and make sure that there is an accountability trail on our side because we’re spending public dollars.

KG-M: Sometimes people really struggle with the question “What can I even measure? My concerts are free and I don’t know who is coming because the events are outdoors. How do I even begin to talk in a quantitative or qualitative way with my funder about what happened and what the outcomes were?”

If you’re doing a concert that’s outdoors and you don’t have tickets to sell, maybe you employ an intern with a clicker to get a rough idea of how many people actually showed up. Can you tell me a story about an organization or a person that was impacted by your work? It’s really a question of thinking about what you’re trying to do and how you will know if you met your goal.

RR: In terms of qualitative information, one innovative practice I have seen is more in-depth interviews with audience members. Asking someone to sit down for an hour or half-an-hour, and getting a good understanding of what drives them to come and what their experience was like. Sometimes that can be in the form of a focus group, where you have a number of audience members participating.

MM: So our grant application has been either denied or approved. How should an organization go about asking for feedback once a decision has been made?

JD: Know whether a program or an organization offers feedback. Some do, some don’t. Often there’s a policy where they only provide written feedback or only verbal, so know what that is and if you don’t know, ask. It’s certainly worth knowing if this is a place that you should be applying to again.

Corporate Support

Although corporations account for only 4-5% of the total giving in the United States, arts organizations should explore developing relationships with businesses as well. Here are some ideas:
Matching gifts are a great way for donors to double the size of their gifts to your chorus. Encourage your donors to sign up, if their employers offer this benefit.
Larger corporations often have corporate foundations. The application process is very similar to any other kind of grant. Be sure to develop a relationship with the foundation director.
Corporations like their employees to be civically involved, and many have structured volunteer programs. It’s worth finding out which of your chorus members or donors work at companies in your community – they can be important door openers.
Corporations often have marketing dollars, separate from their charitable dollars, which they can use for such things as events that give their brand high visibility.
In-kind gifts can be budget-relieving for your chorus. Examples include food and beverages, equipment, event venues, rehearsal space, or pro bono services like legal work and web design. Think about what you can offer in return.
“Non-philanthropic support,” or cause marketing, is a marketing relationship between a for-profit business and a nonprofit organization that is mutually beneficial but does not involve an actual donation—AmazonSmile, for example. Cause marketing does not typically drive a lot of revenue, so be careful about the amount of effort you invest.
This sidebar is drawn for the curriculum of our e-Chorus Management Institute Fundraising Module, presented by nonprofit fundraising consultant Corty Fengler. For more information, visit

We also encourage people who do receive grants to call and ask questions. They might not know about the reporting requirements or might have questions about how they could improve their application. There are always tweaks and improvements to be made.

KG-M: If you didn’t get a grant, don’t call the day that you learned you didn’t get it. Give yourself a moment to let yourself simmer down. And then try to call with an open mind and just ask, “What could we have done differently? Where did we not make our case? What could we have done better to tell our story in a different way?”

Maybe a piece of advice for a chorus is to have someone ask for feedback who didn’t actually write the application. Have somebody who is not as emotionally invested as the grantwriter ask for the feedback. And take notes, so that the organization can learn from what goes on.

We have many examples of organizations that applied once and did not get in, and applied the next year and did get in to our process. They took the feedback to heart, made some changes, and were able to move forward.

MM: What happens if there is a change in a project? Does that make or break whether an organization gets to keep their funding?

RR: I’ve never had a situation where we’ve asked for the money back. Again, it comes back to transparency—just let the funder know right away if there’s a change. If we have confidence in an organization and there’s a minor change in the project, like a shift in personnel or a small budget shift, it's not necessarily a situation in which we would ask for a formal letter of explanation. The changes would all be described through the reporting process.

JD: I’m always surprised when I see a report that says we did everything we planned exactly as we described it. That doesn’t happen very often. So it’s normal for change to happen. But you do need to inform people, especially of major changes and certainly of changes of date. If there’s a date shift, that might impact when you need to submit a report.

You do want whatever you end up doing to be in the same spirit of the original application. So if you submitted an application for doing a recording and all of a sudden you’re taking that money and spending it on touring, that’s not going to work. But if it’s a matter of having to scale back the number of concerts and there are reasons behind it, it’s probably not going to be an issue.

KG-M: The worst thing you can do is say, “I don’t want to tell my funder that. I’m afraid of what they are going to say.” That’s the moment when you need to screw up your courage and tell us what’s going on. Because you know what? If you don’t tell us and we have to read about whatever the change is in the newspaper, that doesn’t bode well in terms of building a strong relationship for future funding.

MM: Finally, I’d like to ask about any common mistakes or bright spots you see in the grant applications you review. What are your do’s and don’ts?

KG-M: I love seeing short videos that show what an organization is doing and show the audience interacting with the organization. A two-minute video shot by your intern or a teenager or somebody that demonstrates not only how you’re performing but how you’re interacting with your audience can be really, really valuable. I highly encourage organizations to choose their support materials wisely and make sure they get some good video in there.

Tips for Grantseeking Success

Know your funder. Whether they are public funders or private foundations, grantmakers’ priorities, levels of transparency, and preferred styles of communication vary. Do your research, and when in doubt, ask.
Follow the directions. Make sure you are answering the questions being asked of you. For example, if a funder provides their own budget form, be sure to use that instead of your own.
Support materials are important. The production values don’t have to be high, but video footage that shows the work your chorus does really is worth a thousand words.
Be transparent. Funders understand that working in the nonprofit arts sector comes with challenges. If your organization is going through financial difficulties or an unexpected leadership transition, there’s no need to sugarcoat the problem – but do be proactive about communicating your plan for finding a solution.

RR: Another important thing is to have a really good, contemporary website—that’s often the public face that your organization puts forward. Especially when reviewers aren’t familiar with your organization. That’s one of the first places they will do some research.

The overall clarity of the proposal is crucial. You don’t want to have a panelist have to dig for information. There are other applications that they’re looking at and if your proposal is a challenge to understand then it’s going to be a lot more difficult for your organization to be considered for an award.

JD: Leave complaining and dwelling on issues out of your grant application. It’s good to be self-reflective, so state where you are having challenges, but also offer solutions, or identify a plan for who will be looking into those particular issues. And don’t assume that the person reading your application knows anything about you.

On the “do” side, be sure to share your organization’s spark. You can easily go down the road of being all factual in an application to the point that you sort of lose the essence of the organization. So remember to keep that spirit—whether that’s in your support materials or in the way you are writing about your planned activities.