Arts & Culture Grant Trends for 2021

AshleyCainAshleyCain Posts: 6
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edited January 2021 in Grant Writing & Management

Hi everyone!

I own a grant consulting firm that specializes in working with arts and culture nonprofits. I put together a blog post recently outlining the 4 key grant writing trends I see headed our way in 2021. I thought I'd post it here and see if we can get a discussion going on what YOU see ahead in 2021 as far as challenges, opportunities, and how you intend to approach grant seeking in the arts and culture space.

As promised, here's that blog post (or you can read it straight on my actual blog here: https://www.cainnonprofitsolutions.com/key-trends-grant-writing-2021/


Looking for the biggest key trends in grant writing for 2021? Look no further.

It’s almost the New Year (thank goodness and good riddance to the dumpster fire that is 2020) and that means a whole new year of grants!


I think there are many things on the horizon this coming year, both personally and professionally, for many of us. It looks like 2021 will have some unfortunate holdovers from 2020, though, such as COVID-19, social distancing, and the need to alter programming, events, and staffing. That means that most nonprofits will need to plan accordingly when it comes to pursuing grants.


Don’t worry. I’m here to help!


This week I want to give you some insight into 4 key trends I expect to see influencing the grants world in 2021 and how you can adapt your approach to grant-seeking so that it’s as solid and award-worthy as possible.


2021 GRANT TREND #1: Less willingness to fund operating

This year many funders allowed grant recipients to convert awarded programming funds to operating because they recognized that through no fault of their own, arts and culture nonprofits were not going to be able to pull off the programming and events they had originally planned. They instead saw the more immediate need for a vital infusion of operating money.


Our sector gratefully accepted this, but in the past few months I’ve seen many foundations and grant makers reverse course. Many are now saying that they won’t fund operating again or allow funds to be converted if programming has to be canceled in 2021. One foundation told a client of mine recently that they want to see proposals for “sexy programming” again.


I could write a book on all the things that are worrying about that statement, but what you need to know is that this particular foundation isn’t alone. I’m hearing this more and more from other grant makers, too, especially smaller foundations.

Here’s what you can do to address this trend:

  • Be honest with grant makers about what your organization and the sector as a whole needs (if no one is telling them, they will have no reason to change course)
  • Make sure you’ve thought through in advance the conversations you want to have to help persuade grant makers to consider operational/unrestricted awards. Talk about long-term impact and the need to support the health and vitality of the sector so that it can make this impact for patrons
  • Don’t just talk about what you are doing this year. Talk about your 3-5 year plan for recovery and eventual expansion or improvements to your programming. Then tie in how support of vital operations and recovery now will accelerate and support that expansion or improvement down the line
  • Lastly, know that some grant makers will not be persuaded to think or gift differently. Have a plan for what you will propose to them, even if the programming is altered or entirely virtual. Back up your programming and performance plans with data, models, or feedback from the community to help you demonstrate why it can still be effective, needed, and desirable


2021 GRANT TREND #2: Less government aid

Since March, nonprofits have thankfully seen a host of relief funding crop up. Some of it has been a result of the CARES Act and others were brought into existence through the efforts of community organizations and grant makers banding together to help make sure local and regional nonprofits could weather the storm without cutting services or programming.

Although there is some talk about additional stimulus funding and possible relief efforts, nothing is solid yet. And It’s unlikely that grant makers who’ve created these funds themselves will be able to continue to do so indefinitely. Donor fatigue is still a thing, too, so those grant makers who offered funding collected from pools of donors will not be able to go back to that well forever, either. To be on the safe side, your organization should plan as though new relief funding will mostly or completely dry up in 2021-2022.


2021 GRANT TREND #3: Emphasis on sustainability

Sustainability has always been a primary concern for grantmakers. But one thing I’m starting to hear more often in relation to the conversation around funding and financial challenges from COVID-19 is that funders are even more interested in the financial health and sustainability of the organizations they fund. Here’s an example from a client’s recent funder conversation which should give some insight into exactly what I mean:

This client had called a funder with whom they’ve had a relationship for a few years now to talk about funding for next season. They asked the funder if they would be open to giving an operating award since they had done so in the current season to help alleviate COVID-19 -related expenses (but prior to that they had only been interested in programs and projects). Their reply was something along the lines of “no, if your organization isn’t financially healthy enough to keep going without operational help from us then we aren’t interested in funding anything else either.”

Again, I could write a War and Peace-length novel about everything that’s wrong with that line of thinking, but what’s important for you to know right now is that this is not the only funder expressing this type of opinion. There will be several out there who will take similar “sink or swim” approaches to funding in 2021.


2021 GRANT TREND #4: You better have a plan

The three grant writing trends I’ve outlined above have everything to do with Coronavirus and how grant makers are responding to the fallout from it (or not responding, as the case may be). So what does this mean for you and your nonprofit?

It means that 2021’s grant trend #4 is all about in-depth planning and it’s the most important trend on this list.

Whether you are successful in convincing funders to consider operating awards or not, most all of them are going to want to know what your plan is for 2021. What do you want to do? What kinds of programming can you feasibly offer? How many people do you think you can serve with this programming? And you better have multiple layers of back-up plans for when (if?) your original plans fall through. If there’s one thing COVID-19 has taught us this year, it’s that we still don’t know a ton and we can expect things to keep changing and evolving over the next 12 months. This means you need to anticipate that your programming and plans will change, too, and decide now how your organization will pivot when challenges inevitably arise.

Along these same lines, and in keeping with 2021’s grant trend #3, you should also take the time to write out a thorough sustainability plan. This plan should include a set of contingencies for how you will locate additional funding and keep your programs and services going even when things change and if expected funding or revenue streams dry up. Another nice touch would be to outline how you will communicate with and update funders, sponsors, and donors about changes.

Being able to lay out a written plan with sets of contingencies will go a very long way towards showing grant makers that even in the middle of a pandemic your organization is a thoughtful, responsible steward of funding and an organization who is above all dedicated to its mission and its patrons.


So much of the trends I expect to see in the grant making/grant writing world in 2021 revolve around the effects of COVID-19. I know we’re all sick of talking about and dealing with the virus, but for now it will continue to shape the arts and culture landscape. The good news is that if you take steps now to plan ahead and put that plan on paper, you will have set yourself up for success as much as possible and you’ll be doing more than many nonprofits.

Keep your head up and your spirits high, grant pros. You are doing great work. See you in 2021!


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