The Grant Cycle
Local Cultural Councils are local partners of Mass Cultural Council and their primary responsibility is as a grantor. Grantmaking offers an exciting opportunity for LCC members to directly contribute to the quality of life for all residents in their community. The foundation of the grant evaluation process is a set of state guidelines that clarify eligibility, allow for transparency, and encourage access. These are detailed in the LCC Program Guidelines. LCCs should create additional review criteria, council priorities, or other procedures that address their community’s specific interests, needs, and resources.
The quality and variety of the grants that LCCs receive depends on good promotion of program information. The process also depends on how well LCCs represent the varied interests of their community, which should be informed through community engagement. Here is a summary of the steps of the grant evaluation process:
Step 1: Establish and Review Criteria
Know and use the three state criteria outlined in the LCC Program Guidelines. Review or establish any council priorities to address specific cultural interests or needs identified through community input meetings. State and local criteria are the primary tools to evaluate the relative strengths of proposals and ensure an impartial decision-making process. Council priorities must posted and accessible to all potential applicants by September 1.
Handling Incomplete Applications
Because the demand for funding far exceeds what is available from many LCCs, there can be the temptation to use “technical disapprovals” to disapprove incomplete applications (missing information, no signature, missing copies) or to deny an application to reduce the number of applications to be reviewed. While this may make the process easier for the grant reviewer, it is a disservice to well-meaning applicants and could eliminate promising projects.
Ideally, LCCs will work with applicants to get missing information or materials in before their voting meeting. Many LCCs may want to use the first few days after reviewing their PDF panel book to review applications to ensure they are complete and give applicants a chance to resolve minor omissions.
Step 2: Council Preparation
Preparing for a voting meeting should involve all LCC members. Divide up tasks as necessary. Follow these steps to prepare for a voting meeting:
- Ensure basic requirements have been met.
- There is an elected chair, secretary, and treasurer in place.
- The LCC consists of at least five active members.
- Distribute information about conflict of interest prior to voting meeting.
- LCC members having potential conflicts of interest with certain applications should abstain from voting and/or complete the necessary forms before the voting meeting or else the voting meeting could be considered invalid.
- Schedule meeting(s) in a physically accessible space.
- Submit notice of meeting(s) at Town or City Hall at least two business days in advance.
- Determine funds available for granting.
- Meet with municipal fiscal officer to reconcile financial records for the previous and current fiscal years (“Update Local Guidelines” section of annual reporting). Review records to identify encumbered funds, unencumbered funds, interest earned, etc. (“Financial Report” section of annual reporting).
- Process and distribute materials.
- Scan applications for missing information and completeness and follow up with the applicant if necessary.
- Distribute the PDF panel book to members to review prior to the meeting.
- Have a copy of the sample denial letter on hand and include local denial reasons so that LCC members have state and local reasons for denial on hand.
- Review criteria used to evaluate grants, including the state requirements.
- Have state guidelines and council priorities on hand during the voting meeting.
Step 3: Review Applications and Make Awards
Review applications before the LCC’s voting meeting. All members should read all the applications; however, each LCC member can be responsible for presenting a select group of proposals to the rest of the group at the meeting. In your role as a grant evaluator consider these essential qualities:
- Maintain objectivity; vote with your head, not your heart.
- Listen carefully to other opinions and viewpoints in the grant decision process, and throughout the year.
- Be open-minded because you represent your whole community.
During the voting meeting, give sufficient time to each application so that all LCC members can express their opinions. Evaluation comments, both positive and negative, should be clear and related to the criteria. Be specific about why you chose certain proposals over others. Use the following information regarding proposal evaluation, budget review, and common funding dilemmas to help focus the LCC’s evaluation discussion. Before the review meeting is over, set a reconsideration meeting date in case one is needed.
With strong demand for LCC funds, it is critical to articulate the relative strengths of each proposal. How does an application compare with others? Which proposals provide the best public benefit? A stronger proposal might provide more public benefit because it reaches an underserved community segment or offers more compelling artistic/cultural experiences. The sample score sheet includes questions to help members consider and compare proposals. Brainstorm and add to this list of questions. Consider sharing the LCC’s score sheet with applicants on your council profile so they know exactly what criteria the LCC uses to evaluate applications.
Reviewing the Budget
Incomplete or poorly prepared budgets can reflect poor project planning. Many applicants are not experienced with writing grants, and budget preparation is often a challenging part of the application. An adequately prepared budget should include budget figures that result from researching costs (printing costs, artist teaching or performing fees, facility rental costs, administrative expenses, etc.). They should also reflect the dollar value of “in-kind” products or services, if any.
“In-kind” refers to the approximate dollar value of anything that is donated to a project, such as art materials, a free space which normally charges rent or an individual’s time, to name a few. Such donations help demonstrate community support for a project. Finally, and most importantly, a budget should be balanced so that projected income will cover projected expenses.
Other Funding Dilemmas
Many LCCs face some combination of the following dilemmas. LCCs should discuss these scenarios before the grant review to develop their own local policies or requirements. It is very difficult to do this in the middle of the review process when time is limited, and members are overwhelmed with applications. Making changes about policies or criteria during the review process is also unfair to applicants and could be grounds for reconsideration.
Too many applications, too few dollars: Even though funds are very limited, LCCs always need to encourage applications especially from new applicants to ensure that funding is accessible to everyone. LCCs should not discourage applications but should evaluate which best serve their community. When making decisions, LCC members must be aware of why some proposals are chosen over others and subsequently properly convey any strengths or weaknesses to the denied applicants. “Limited funds” is not by itself an appropriate reason for denial.
Repeat applicants: LCCs have the autonomy to limit how often applicants can apply or how many proposals can come from one organization, individual, or school. Some LCCs ask applicants with multiple projects to identify which project is the priority for them. Some projects are funded repeatedly because an LCC feels they are valuable. However, LCCs need to ensure opportunities for newcomers to compete for funding and avoid the perception that the LCC may be showing favoritism. One way of encouraging new applicants to apply is to include in your council priorities a statement that conveys that the LCC is prioritizing first-time applicants.
Out-of-town applicants: Some LCCs appreciate being able to support long-distance artists who will present a program in their community. Other LCCs automatically disapprove such projects because they have a funding policy to only support local artists. Some LCCs send contact information to disapproved artists to encourage planning with a local sponsor that would apply on their behalf in the future. All applicants must reside in or be in Massachusetts.
Step 4: Communicate with Applicants
Communicate the LCC’s decisions in writing, via email or hard copy. Unsuccessful applicants may request reconsideration if they can demonstrate that the LCC did not follow published state guidelines and council priorities. If a decision is changed and the reconsidered grant is given an award, the amounts awarded to other approved applications will need to be adjusted. Therefore, it is important to first send denial letters and wait the requisite 15 days before sending out award letters.
After the reconsideration period has concluded, LCCs can complete the annual reporting. The annual reporting ensures that all final accounting of grant amounts and available funds is correct by serving as the LCC’s official final report to Mass Cultural Council before they will authorize the release of funds. After completing the annual reporting, LCCs can notify successful applicants that their application was approved and explain the payment process and Mass Cultural Council credit policy.
Step 5: Evaluate the Grant Making Process
An effective LCC reflects on its process, including how well it educates applicants and addresses community needs and interests. Reflection is most productive when done soon after the review meeting while the experience is still fresh for all participants. New policies and council priorities can be developed at this time and shared with future applicants next year.
Many LCCs make a point to attend projects when possible. This is a great chance to evaluate a project from the participant’s perspective. LCCs can split up the projects between members so that at least one member is able to attend each event. Members can take notes or fill out an evaluation form afterwards. It is good to keep these notes with the grant materials so that the LCC can refer to it if the applicant applies again.
LCCs are committed to supporting high quality projects within the community. Examining the success and impact of approved grants allows LCCs to better evaluate similar projects or returning grantees in the future. Including an evaluation component as part of the reimbursement process can also help LCCs to determine that a project has been completed as promised. Some LCCs provide a self-evaluation form for grantees to submit along with their reimbursement. See a sample evaluation.