NCG's Practice Lab is a resource space to share great experiments and learnings in philanthropy. The Lab focuses on actions that experiment and takes risks, fails forward with lessons learned, and lifts up equitable best practices.
Launching The Common App for the Arts: Simplifying Funding Applications to Align Action with Values
As arts funders, we started with a dream: What if we could come together to create a single application that streamlined the application process for grantseekers? What if we could create the first-of-its-kind common application widely accepted by arts funders?
Our vision emerged from research several of us co-commissioned in 2021 to understand how artists and arts organizations accessed arts funding during the height of the COVID pandemic.
We learned that if grantmakers had collaborated more, if grant applications were simplified, and if there was greater transparency about funding opportunities, then the mad rush of arts-relief funding that was distributed in the first year of the pandemic would have been allocated more effectively, efficiently, and equitably.
Although the missions, strategies, and goals of our foundations are different, we share the belief that the grant application process should be simpler, and it is our responsibility as funders to reduce the burdens we place on grantseekers wherever we can.
That is what our newly launched Common Application for the Arts is all about.
We hope that our version 1.0 tool will improve with input from the community, and that more grantmakers will join us in accepting a “Common App.”
How did you center the communities you are hoping to serve in your experiment?
Through nearly a year’s worth of collaborative conversations, we developed principles to guide our work and decision-making, and centering grantseekers’ user-experience was foremost among them. From the outset, our goals were to demystify the application process so that everyone feels welcome and to remove barriers that might make potential grantseekers conclude that arts funding was not for them.
In practice, this meant shaking ourselves out of using funder-driven jargon, asking for information that was nice to have but did not substantively inform grantmaking decisions, or requiring bespoke budget formats. We want to make the application questions available well in advance of any deadlines and to provide opportunities for grantseekers to be in conversation with funders and learn about guidelines, eligibility and priorities.
What risks did you take together in service of equity?
From our perspective, the risks for funders are low, and applicants stand to gain back valuable time and resources. Historically, funders have centered their efficiency and priorities over those of their grantseekers, and we acknowledged the need to let go of individual funder needs in service of the greater good, fighting the tendency to get stuck in our ways. In rolling out this first version of The Common Application, we strive to align actions with values, and we are leaning into communication, transparency, and applicant engagement.
What advice or call to action do you have for other arts funders?
Arts funders are generally very collaborative, but even so, all funders have internal obstacles that prevent change. Acknowledging internal hurdles, one of our guiding principles in piloting The Common App has been a bias towards action. This principle helped us to overcome the trap of analysis-paralysis, recognizing that waiting for perfect circumstances or all potential issues to be solved before making a move may mean waiting forever. We are less invested in perfection and more in progress.
So, our advice is to try something! Establish a starting place from which to evolve and improve. Engage the community as co-creators and build together. Know that version 1.0 will not be perfect but you will learn a lot from what you roll out in that messy first attempt and that version 2.0 will be even better.
How can this idea be scaled and replicated in philanthropy?
This effort was designed with replication and scale in mind. Funder coordination and collaboration at any level requires time and resources, but we hope that our work thus far eases and facilitates broad adoption.
Importantly, we are piloting the process with the intention of sharing how we are implementing the application to help funders imagine how they can join us. We are engaging foundation staff at all levels, including Grants Directors and Managers, to support technical integration, and we are developing a Common Application for the Arts Charter to establish guiding principles that steward adoption and use.
In addition, we are already in conversation with other Bay Area arts funders and re-granters about adoption and will continue to advocate for and support its implementation within the funding community. We are also inviting and encouraging grantseekers to advocate for The Common Application with the hope that grantseekers’ personal advocacy with their respective funders will tip the scales. The more funders participate, the more likely it is that we can collectively invest in our technological capacity to advance our goals at scale.
Engage and Learn More
We invite you to join us on this exciting experiment! Our downloadable application is here, along with additional FAQs and support. Please contact us at email@example.com to get in touch and learn more.
View the Application
Join Us and Engage
We also invite you to join us for virtual event where we'll learn how this collaboration happened, what was learned, and the potential for transformation.