The Community

4 Your Audience

Understanding Who It's For and Why

spotlight on conductor leading orchestra with audience in background


In this chapter, you learn how to…

  • Identify the purpose of your project and the audience it serves.
  • Articulate how to find your audience and connect them with your artistic work.
  • Explain the fundamentals of audience analysis.
  • Consider the impact of your project on your audience and community.

When you are developing a new project, work, idea, or concept, keep in mind that there are ultimately two questions a grant panelist will ask themselves as they read your proposal:

  • What is it for?
  • Who is it for?

If you understand that this is the lens through which a grant reviewer is perceiving your project, then you can more easily prepare your materials. (Godin, 2018). Your proposal materials can clearly articulate what you are making, who will experience the work, and how you plan to connect with that audience (Sivers, 2020).

This means you need to empathize with your audience. To understand how you can reach the audience you are interested in targeting, you need to be certain that your project aligns with the needs or interests of that specific community (Herstand, 2016).

As you take steps towards developing your project and identifying your audience, consider these words:

“While you can be driven by a lofty, hard-to-quantify purpose, the goal of your actions or work should be more specific. If (one of) your objective(s) is to do good and not just to be expressive or make something for yourself, you should set a reasonably thought-through intention for what success (however you measure that) would look like. Keep in mind, the work you do can either solve a problem or plant seeds to inch towards a reality you want—the important thing is to be clear about what exactly it is your impact project is trying to accomplish.”

–Omayeli Arenyeka, in How to think differently about doing good as a creative person (Creative Independent)

Last, your ability to clearly communicate what and for whom you are creating is essential to successfully share the project outcomes and the audience impact.

As we dive into this chapter, you will find terms like audience, target audience, and community. Keep in mind that the size of your audience does not define the success of a project. There are successful projects with enormous audiences that span multiple generations, areas of interests, and demographics, as well as successful projects that are incredibly specific, with small, targeted populations. At both ends of the spectrum, the projects are impactful because their creators had a clear understanding of what they were creating and who they wanted to engage with when the project was shared with the public.

Artists in Action

“[Theaters] were offering plays that they wanted to do, cultivating seasons that really didn’t have anything to do with what their audiences wanted. They were challenging their audiences and that’s what they were there to do. So audiences left. Then theaters realized, ‘Well, we actually need audiences to come to our theaters. So maybe we should understand what they want and cultivate seasons that both challenge them and engage them in different ways and maybe offer a smattering of different things for different tastes.’

The performing arts organizations, many of them, are thriving. They’re bringing in new leadership, young leadership, leadership with different points of view. They are doing all of these things to aggregate data on who’s coming to them and why they’re coming to them. They’re looking at different subscription models. They’re doing all of these things, but are they listening to what people want? Are they actually serving the purpose that they’re there to serve? Are they just listening and then saying, ‘Well, we’ve got to make money?’ I don’t know.”

Ian Tresselt

Identifying Your Target Audience

When you read the phrase “identifying your target audience,” it might feel like we are going to talk about marketing, marketing strategies, or branding, but that’s not our focus right now. It is true that all three of those elements can be important in a project’s success, but for now we need to point our attention towards identifying the individuals who need or want the product or experience you are creating.

Let’s begin by clarifying the two questions that will serve as guideposts to help identify your target audience and help you align the purpose of your project with the specific community it serves.

What is it for?

There is always a reason behind why someone is creating something—always. In addition to personal motivations, you’ll want to articulate what purpose this project serves for your audience. It could be to solve a problem, explore an idea, build a new audience, or reduce the carbon footprint. The possibilities are endless. More importantly, with this question we have created the opportunity to clearly articulate the purpose of your project. This means you need to look at what you are working on from a 30,000-foot point of view in order to create and define the objective(s) of the project. If you distill the project and all its parts down to the essential outcome or outcomes, what are they? Not only will this help you define your target audience, it is crucial to communicate the essential outcomes to potential funders.That is what the funder wants to know and understand.

Who is it for?

At some point in your life, you may have heard the phrase, “There is a lid for every pot.” Not every lid will work with every pot. But when you connect the ‘right lid’ with the ‘right pot,’ you can do some pretty amazing things.

The same thing can be said for artistic work and audience. Whether you are creating a new painting, piece of choreography, after-school program, novel, digital software, or interpretation of a Beethoven Sonata, you need to identify the audience or people you want to engage with the creation you are developing. When you can identify the ‘right audience’ (lid) to the ‘right work’ (pot), amazing outcomes can occur.

Answering the question, “Who is it for?” is an effective way to quickly understand the individuals you want to connect to your creative work.

You might be asking the following questions:

  • “I never think about my audience. Why is this important?”
  • “Everyone could be my audience, if only they took the time to learn about my work. Why do I need to define them?”
  • “I have no idea who my audience is. How do I find them?”
  • “I know who my audience is but don’t know how to reach them. How do I engage with them?”
  • “This is so stressful. I am an artist! I didn’t get into this line of work for this! Why do I have to know this?”
  • “I have an audience, but I want to grow it. How can I diversify who engages with my work?”

The good news is, regardless of where you landed within your responses, we offer tools, approaches, and information to assist you with answering the above questions.

So, let’s get to work answering these questions. Grab some paper and a pencil or pen. First, we’ll dig into the question, “What is it for?”

What Is It For?

Step 1: Capture

Create an overview of your project in three sentences or less. Earn bonus points if you can use less than 100 words. As you get started, think about the goal of your project and how it connects with your audience. It could be a performance, a product you are creating to solve a specific problem, or an event that provides an interactive experience for your audience. Regardless of the type of project, clearly identify the anticipated result when you share it with others. Include the goal and how it connects with your audience.

Step 2. Find the Gaps

Now that you have captured the fundamental purpose of the project, share the text with a mentor, colleague, friend, classmate, or family member with this prompt:

“I would like you to take a moment and read this overview of a project I am currently developing for grant funding. From just these few sentences, answer these two questions. What do you understand about this project? What questions do you have from what I have captured?”

This next part is important! Pay close attention to their response and listen without responding right away. You may feel defensive of your ideas, but it’s important to hear the other perspectives first.

  • What questions do they have for you?
  • What do they understand?
  • What leaves them scratching their heads?

These questions are the essential data points you need to collect to identify and close the gaps in your thinking and communication of our first question: What is it for?

At the end of the session, thank them for sharing their thoughts with you—feedback is a gift and thanking them is important—and let them know you will be back in touch shortly with an updated version to review.

Step 3: Incorporate the Feedback

A couple words about receiving and accepting feedback—it’s hard. At times, getting feedback from trusted colleagues, friends, or family can sting. Still, it is a critical step towards communicating clearly about your project (Kleon, 2014). Learning how to accept (and when to ignore) criticism is a key part of an artist’s job. It is a chance to reflect, grow, and improve.

Now, reflect on the comments and revise your original draft.

  • What can you change within the constraints of three sentences to answer the questions that emerged?
  • Can you clarify a specific element of the project?

Perhaps you need to modify your approach or word choice. Regardless of how you do it, revisit the questions in Step 2 to clarify your message as revise this text.

Step 4: Circle Back

With your revised text, return to your reader and share your revision. Did you answer their questions? It’s okay if the reader still has questions or if new questions emerge. Listen to their feedback, collect the points they bring up, and repeat Steps 3 and 4 from this process until you are satisfied with the results. While this process can be time consuming, the time invested is worth the effort. The clarity it provides improves your ability to effectively articulate the purpose of your proposed project for a potential funder.

Artists in Action

“When we’re out in the community advocating, the best thing we can do is just simply share a path of passion and enthusiasm. And I do that every day. People want to be part of something that’s exciting and transformational. What we’re doing through grant funding is giving them that opportunity.”

Jessica Satava

Once you can answer the question, “What is it for?” regarding your project, we then turn to the next question, “Who is it for?” Accomplishing this task requires the following:

  1. A clear understanding of the purpose of your project
  2. Thorough audience research
  3. Empathy

Fortunately, you’ve done a lot of the hard work already! Understanding “what” is the first step toward identifying “who,” because your audience will vary depending on what you are planning to create. To narrow this down for your project, let’s consider some examples.

Example: You’re creating an interdisciplinary art installation, in collaboration with two dancers and a composer, that will be displayed in your city’s local modern art museum. Your installation makes a statement on global warming.

Audience: Your audience might include patrons of or visitors to the modern art museum, environmentalists, locals interested in visual art, dance, or music, as well as friends and supporters of you and your collaborators.

Example: You’re creating a music education outreach program for elementary school students in under-resourced schools that don’t have music programs.

Audience: Your audience might include the elementary students at the school, their parents, teachers, and school staff, and local supporters of music education.

If we zoom back out a bit, the main focus is connecting elements of your creative work and its purpose with the needs and interests of your community, no matter how big or how small. For artists creating a product, service, program, or app, consider the problem you are trying to solve. Then turn that work towards the individuals experiencing that challenge. For artists that are interested in creating a new experience for a listener, viewer, or event attendee, consider individuals or groups interested in similar or related types of work. Perhaps most importantly, we can greatly benefit from communicating with our potential audiences to ensure our work will make a positive, rather than harmful, impact, particularly with projects geared toward social change. It is imperative not to assume what a community needs without asking, getting input, and respecting community leaders.

Omayeli Arenyeka discusses how to be thoughtful and intentional about your creative work in her article, “How To Think Differently About Doing Good as a Creative Person”[1] in the Creative Independent. She talks about how to avoid the “Creative Savior Complex,” align your artistic objectives with the community around you, and ensure you are actually making a positive difference for the problem you intend to solve.

Dig Deeper in Exercise 4-1. Read and reflect on Arenyeka’s article.

Knowing who you’re trying to reach helps you maximize the energy and resources you’re putting into your artistic work and allows you to interact and communicate with your target audience in more effective ways. Putting time and energy into this work upfront gives you a better direction for your efforts to build audiences at your events and performances, users for your new service, and interest from relevant organizations. It’s also important to do your research and have conversations with the right stakeholders to make sure you are designing your project appropriately for your audience. When you’re working to identify the audience for your project, consider the following questions:

  • Is the project serving the community you’ve identified in the best way possible?
  • Where and when is the project happening?
  • Who can access it?
  • What are the elements that make up your project?
  • What community members or groups would have an interest in those elements?
  • What is the impact you are trying to make?
  • Who needs to interact with your art for this impact to happen?
  • Who else supports your goal or your desired impact (organizations, groups, or individuals)?
  • Who is connected to any partners or collaborators you’re working with?
  • How might your project be relevant to any of their supporters or stakeholders?

Artists in Action

“Steelpan, for us, is where young kids, older people, and everybody in between can go to a specific place and participate in this community music making activity. But the ethos of it is building community through this aspect of music making where everybody is on an equal playing field and learning different things.”

Khandeya Sheppard

Who Is It For?

Let’s go back to the overview text you created about your project to answer, “What is it for?” You’ll use that as a baseline to brainstorm on “Who is it for?”

Step 1: Brainstorm

Set a timer for five minutes. Use the questions above to brainstorm a list of as many audiences or communities as possible that might be interested in your project. Note why you think these audiences might connect with your artistic work.

Step 2: Elaborate

Review your list. This is your chance to think more deeply about your own ideas. Continue to add ideas about what connects these groups or individuals to your work. Make notes about any audiences that may be more challenging to reach due to practical or logistical barriers. For example, there might be a jazz club in New York that you’re connected with, but your jazz concert is in Los Angeles. Or you’re hosting a display of visual art with live poetry, but some of your visual art fans live in another country and don’t speak the same language.

Step 3: Prioritize

Identify a few groups that you consider to be the most likely, prominent, or accessible audiences. Not to worry! You may still come back to some of your other ideas later. For now, prioritizing will help focus your initial outreach efforts in the areas that will hopefully be the most rewarding.

After this exercise, you have an idea of who you anticipate your audience to be.

  • How can you learn more about them?
  • Where are they?
  • And most importantly, how can you reach them?

To explore these questions, the next section will discuss how to better understand and connect with your audience through audience analysis.

Artists in Action

“Most musicians are hoping that their music creates transformational change, whether it’s from an educational program or even in a concert hall. But you have to be able to articulate exactly how and what exact issue it’s addressing. And the community has to believe that’s important.”

Alysia Lee

Finding Your Audience

Audience Research and Analysis

Now that you understand the focus of your project and have begun to identify your audience, you need to build your knowledge base about that community so you can effectively communicate with them about your work. There has long been a myth perpetuated in the arts that the audience will “find” you. While you do need to be findable, this myth could not be further from the truth. Before any audience can find you, they need a reason to connect with your work.  The job of each artist is to create a vision for their work, identify their audience, and develop strategies for how they can engage their community in a dialogue about what they are creating.

There are several approaches that can help you better understand your audience. This is also referred to as audience or user analysis. In this section, we will look at a few tools commonly used to help identify the characteristics of a particular audience, with the goal of understanding the motivations and how to reach them.

Your research should correlate to the size of the project and how familiar you are with the project’s subject, niche, or trends. Research can help eliminate blind spots in familiar areas. Larger projects in new areas may require more research. Audience research and analysis can identify messages or unrealistic ideas you haven’t questioned or that don’t hold up against the real world.

Dig Deeper in Exercise 4-2. Read best practices and techniques for research methods.

As you begin to think about identifying your audience it is helpful to remember that audiences are made up of individuals and that it is possible to group or organize an audience in a multitude of ways. Western culture and the world of business in the 20th and 21st century enjoys grouping individuals into what can most easily be described as markets. However, you might find it helpful to think of this grouping as communities or fans. This term can cover a broad range of topics from values, attributes, and characteristics, to trading, the promotion of public services, and social influence. At its core, markets and market segments are comprised of people involved in the timeless exchange of goods and services (Martins, Yusuf, & Swanson, 2012).

Ultimately, artists want to understand what motivates a particular audience to engage in our work. To help us establish a clearer understanding of what generates interest from the individuals, there are a variety of approaches, tools, and techniques for businesses (and artists) to better understand the needs of the communities they serve. For the purposes of our discussion, we focus on developing a basic understanding of two specific topics to help you organize your audience research process: demographics and psychographics. We also provide resources that discuss how to avoid bias (Cambridge, n.d.) and stereotyping in the segmentation process.

Artists in Action

“We thought initially that high schools would be a great place. Let’s go to high schools, right? They’ve got auditoriums, they’ve got [other things], but nobody came to the high schools. Where they came were to the churches, to the synagogues, to the community centers that had built-in audiences already, that were doing some level of programming of some sort. It wasn’t always music. Sometimes they had art shows; they had different things. But if we were in a high school and didn’t have the kids on the stage, nobody cared. Even though it was around the corner from whatever marketing research we did around those people.”

Andrew Kipe


The first step in your audience or user analysis is identifying a demographic group or groups that are relevant to your project. Demographic information, which is another form of market segmentation covers the external or physical characteristics that make up your audience (Martins et al., 2012). Basic demographics typically includes age, gender identity, income, and location.

Additional demographic factors are listed below:

  • Occupation
  • Level of education
  • Relationship status
  • Religion
  • Race
  • Ethnicity
  • Sexual orientation

Neutrality and Reflexivity

As you conduct research, it’s imperative to remain neutral and reflective in your efforts to minimize bias. For example, based on your personal upbringing, you may associate certain gender roles with parenting or housekeeping. Staying conscious of any preconceptions allows you to avoid bringing these with you in your research and audience analysis process.

Taking this a step further, neutrality and reflexivity allow you to be thoughtful about how you categorize your audience. This is important because, if you’re not careful, market segmentation can lead to stereotyping (Clow & Stevens, 2009; Gregório, 2018). Take the time to check any assumptions before acting on them. One tool that you can use to begin the work of exploring your own biases is the online Implicit Association Test[2] utilized by authors Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald in their book, Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People.

Dig Deeper in Exercise 4-3. Explore the difference between segmentation and stereotyping.


Demographic information helps you generate a rough sketch of your target audience. But when you’re looking for deeper insights into your audience, that’s the time to begin using psychographic segmentation.

Psychographics is an approach to the classification of people that employs several assumptions within given characteristics (Lipke, 2000). It is the general term describing psychological characteristics of consumers, such as personality traits, values, and opinions, as well as lifestyle data like activities and interests (Lewis & Littler, 1999). As the name indicates, it is based on the segmentation of the United States adult consumer population (Martins et al., 2012). This approach utilizes a system of classification that combines psychological attitudes, values and beliefs associated with various socioeconomic characteristics (Atlas, 1984).

Psychographics can be challenging because it involves subjective information, in contrast to demographics that rely on objective, statistical data. Psychographic metrics are usually more important than basic demographic information in determining how to reach and excite an audience.

To begin developing a psychographic profile of your audience, start with the following prompts:

  • Does your target audience have a distinct personality or lifestyle?
  • What are the interests of your target audience?
  • What kind of activities or hobbies do they do?
  • What are their attitudes, values, and opinions towards certain subjects?

Personality and Lifestyle

Examples of personality and lifestyle questions include the following:

  • Are they introverted or extroverted?
  • What does their day-to-day life look like?
  • Do they have specific habits as part of their routine?
  • Where do they shop?
  • Where do they get coffee (if they drink it)?
  • What kind of vehicle do they drive?


Examples of interest-based questions include the following:

  • What kind of music do they like?
  • Do they have a favorite type of food?
  • What topics do they read about on the internet?

Activities or Hobbies

Examples of questions about activities and hobbies include the following:

  • Do they enjoy outdoor activities?
  • Do they exercise? How?
  • Do they go to see live arts? Where?
  • Do they have a pet?

Attitudes, Values and Opinions

Examples of questions about attitudes, values, and opinions include the following:

  • How do they feel about recycling?
  • Do they have strong political beliefs?
  • How open-minded are they?
  • Are they spiritual or do they have strong religious beliefs?

Attitudes, values, and opinions are often woven with characteristics in other categories. For example, someone might drive a Toyota Prius because they are environmentally conscious. Focus on collecting and analyzing more intangible characteristics, such as lifestyle, interests, hobbies, values, and opinions, as these are the points most relevant to targeting your project.

The tools outlined in this section provide you with information and techniques to gather data about individuals, groups, and specific populations. When used effectively, market segmentation, demographics, and psychographics allow you the opportunity to develop a “rough sketch” of the people that make up your potential audience. Having this information at hand can inform the work you create, the events you develop to support that creative work, and the mechanisms you employ to reach different communities within your audience. Developing or growing your audience requires that you understand the individuals that make up this community.

Dig Deeper in Exercise 4-4. Reflect on the insights provided by demographics and psychographics.

Case Study: Louisville Orchestra

A great example of this can be observed in the case study of the Louisville Orchestra. By researching their current supporters and being intentional about the new communities they wanted to reach within the Louisville community, the Louisville Orchestra emerged from financial challenges and developed a thriving performing arts organization with a new, vibrant, and more engaged audience within the Louisville Community.

In 2008, the Louisville Orchestra faced an economic recession, an administrative reorganization, dwindling ticket sales, and a prolonged labor dispute. They needed to both reconnect with their existing audience and increase exposure in their community. To learn about their current and potential audiences, they hired a marketing research firm to conduct focus group interviews. They designed the interviews to help them better understand the current perceptions of the orchestra as well as an ideal image of the orchestra.

Dig Deeper in Exercise 4-5. Learn more about the Louisville Orchestra.

Beyond the Audience

In this chapter, our primary focus has been on understanding and identifying your audience. These are the people who will engage with your project. However, these aren’t the only people who can impact who goes to your show, who hires you for that gig, or who funds your project! Let’s take a moment to think about the impact and perspectives brought about by influencers and decision makers (Bernstein, 2014).

Influencers aren’t just people on social media. This term can also refer to anyone who could speak to others about your project. This includes a reviewer, blogger, or an opinionated and respected person with a large group of friends. Influencers often have connections to individuals that are beyond your target audience and can raise the profile of your work. In essence, they can help you grow new audiences beyond your current scope.

Understanding who influences your audience can provide other helpful insights as well. You’ll want to pay particular attention to what topics, trends, and ideas the influencers are promoting, as it may help you refine your marketing strategy.

Decision makers bring in the element of evaluation. They choose between options, often limiting what will be offered to the users or audience. A typical example of this in the performing arts is a manager for a concert series, or even a funder deciding what projects will be backed. While decision makers carefully consider the wants and needs of the users or audience, their perspective and values also play into their decision-making process. Sometimes, these values won’t match the needs of your target audience. When this disconnect happens, it indicates one of two things:

  1. Your work may not be a good fit for that series or funder.
  2. You may need to reframe your work so that it appeals to both the decision makers and your target audience.

Making an Impact

Now that you have some basic tools to help you identify and understand your specific audience and what motivates them, it’s time to align the narrative of your work so that you can connect with this community.

This comes back to that idea of empathy and understanding the needs of your audience. How can you position your project so that it resonates with your audience? Think about what you are creating and what it could offer.

Here’s an example:

Malcolm, a violinist, is creating an after school strings music program for students between the ages of 6–9 years of age. What does this program offer the community beyond providing him with a source of income as a teaching artist?

  • Mentorship to participants
  • Musical skill building for participants
  • Community building through the students participating
  • Additional childcare for working parents
  • A new artistic resource for the school or community center affiliated with the program
  • The opportunity for students to develop self-expression, leadership skills, teamwork, and resiliency in their music making
  • A new point of connection for the parents with the school or organization that hosts the program

In this case, the number of students impacted by this program may appear small, but that does not diminish the impact of the program overall. In fact, the effects extend beyond the students to the individual families and the hosting community organization. It provides new entry points of engagement at multiple levels, a powerful way for the artist to frame the project for the community partner and granting organization. The impact extends far beyond the quantity or size of the audience served. In this case, the value encompasses the experiences and skills developed by the participants and the opportunity to share an art form with a younger generation and specific community. This example aligns the artist mission with the project, the participants, and the partnering school or community center. In doing so, it articulates a successful project with a meaningful impact.

Dig Deeper Exercises

Exercise 4-1. Social Change and the Creative
Read this article called “How To Think Differently About Doing Good as a Creative Person”[3] by Omayeli Arenyeka in the Creative Independent. Draft a brief response to the article that responds to the following prompts:

  • What kind of change do you hope to see in the arts world?
  • What is most unclear concept or muddiest point for you?
  • Which point most resonates with you? Share the quotation or shiniest gem from the article.

Exercise 4-2. Research Methods
For a brief overview of research methods, check out this post from the University of Southern California School for Communication and Journalism called Four Research Methods for Audience Analysis.[4] One common way to conduct research about an audience includes surveys. Surveys are a great way to gather more data about your audience and can add weight to the targeting of your project proposal. Several free online survey options are available (e.g., Google Forms,[5] Survey Monkey,[6] or TypeForm[7]). Check out these survey design best practices[8] from Qualtrics. If it makes sense for your project, create a survey to learn more about your audience.

  1. Define the purpose of your survey.
  2. Draft 5–8 simple and direct questions.
  3. Test your survey with peers for feedback.
  4. Revise your survey based on feedback.

Exercise 4-3.Segmentation and Stereotyping
For more discussion on the difference between segmentation and stereotyping, read this brief article from Angry Ventures.[9]

Exercise 4-4. Psychographics
Review the following resources:

Brainstorm some potential demographic and psychographic characteristics of your potential audience.

  • What insight does this give you into your audience?
  • How do these characteristics inform the way you might design your program?
  • What does this begin to tell you about how you might communicate with these individuals?

Exercise 4-5. Louisville Orchestra
Released in 2010, a full-length feature documentary film, “Music Makes A City,” chronicles the Louisville Orchestra. Aired nationally on PBS in 2014, it shares one of the most ambitious artistic undertakings by an American orchestra in history. Check out the following resources:

  • PBS Trailer. Watch the PBS trailer for the Gramophone Award-winning documentary “Music Makes A City.”[12] (2:06 min)
  • Documentary Website. Visit the film website[13] for a wealth of information about the story, the composers, and the achievements of the Louisville Orchestra.
  • Series Website. Music Makes a City Now,[14] a new original web series inspired by the film, follows musical visionaries who build communities with great music.

Key Takeaways

Understanding your audience is critical to the successful launch of a project. It raises the likelihood that your project will find an interested audience, community, or set of users to engage with your work. Here are a few points to consider as you continue to refine your understanding of your target audience.

  • With each new project you develop, two questions can help you stay aligned with the purpose of your project and the specific community it serves:
    • What is it for?
    • Who is it for?
  • Demographics help you identify the external or physical characteristics of a potential segment of the population and can provide a rough sketch of your audience.
  • Psychographics inform how to reach and excite your audience. More relevant to engagement than demographics, the subjective nature of psychographics can be challenging.
  • Be neutral and reflexive to mitigate bias throughout the research process.
  • The size of your audience does not determine the success of a project. Projects are successful when artists have a clear understanding of what they are creating, who they want to engage with the project, and how to communicate with that community. Focus on quality before quantity.

Artist Interviews

Below are excerpts from artist interviews conducted by Zane Forshee. Full artist bios and interviews are available in About the Artists. This section includes the following artists and topics:

  • Alysia Lee on What She Wish She Knew Earlier
  • Khandeya Sheppard on What She Wish She Knew Earlier

Alysia Lee on What She Wish She Knew Earlier

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started seeking funding?

ZF: What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started seeking funding?

AL: I think the number one thing about seeking funding is: there are almost never new questions. Repeat the answers that you know are the correct answer. When I first started grant writing, I would rewrite my grant every time. I would sit down with a blank word document every time I had a grant instead of relying on what I call a boilerplate—answering some basic questions that we know people are going to ask. Those questions get retooled.

How do you handle new questions?

Another thing is you want to stay organized, right away. So, you want to have your boilerplate in a folder and then revisions in a folder. When a new question comes up, I add that question to the boilerplate.

In light of the double pandemics of racial discrimination and COVID-19, we have new questions on our grant applications, right? There have never been a lot of questions about racial diversity and how organizations are representing community.

  • What does that mean when you say you represent a community?
  • Is that happening in your board?
  • Is that happening in your staff or how are the people in that community also making decisions in your organization?

Those questions are pretty new for arts organizations, with a few outliers of funders who’ve been thinking about that for a while. You may have been thinking about it, but you may not have written a beautifully crafted statement on it. So, once you hear a new question, you want to pop it into your boilerplate and keep it.

You just want to stay very organized. Same thing about COVID-19—people are interested more in the ways that communities are driving changes in programs. All programs have changed because COVID-19 required that. So, how are you making those decisions? They may have not really necessarily asked us that before. “What’s the power dynamic in your organization?” is really at the center of those kinds of new questions. You want to stay very organized with your answers.

Then the last thing is, you have to really think about the fundraising as a dating adventure that never ends. It’s like you’re courting the person. It may take a while, may take a couple years, for a funder to trust in your vision.

Some funders are what I would say is risk incentivized. They like to fund new projects by young upstarts. And some are not. You have to know when a no doesn’t mean no forever, it just means no right now. You have to keep in touch with those people. Keep the relationships positive. When you get the money, you’ve got to thank them well. When the money’s been spent, you’ve got to wrap back around and say, I spent your money, thank you, and this is what we did with it versus what I said I would do.

If things have changed, be transparent and honest. Your goal is to have a funder come into your cycle of your organization and be a return donor. Not all donors want to donate every year to the same organizations, but if they donate once, then whenever that time is up, you’re ready to cycle that money, come back, we want your money again. You want to just keep all of those money relationships very positive and uplifting, even when people deny you. Because it doesn’t mean no forever, it just means no for right now.

Khandeya Sheppard on What She Wish She Knew Earlier

What do you know now that you wish you knew then?

ZF: The other question that I have is, as you look back, and this was obviously a major success as you did it, what would you have done differently? If you can go back and the post-Dynamic Steel success, you’re like, “Yay… and part two.”

KS: That goes to one of the questions I think that’s posed to us all the time. What did you want to know before you started this project? I really wish—because I think I started to find out about it after I was really involved in the project—I really wish I had known how to approach it from the individual artist’s perspective of getting grants to fund cultural projects such as these because they exist. I didn’t approach it that way because in my head, at first the project was just, I am doing a concert. I did not look at it for all of the ramifications or the different opportunities that it could fit into. Technically, this was a cultural event happening in a cultural space.

While I got great pleasure out of being able to put all these pieces into place, self-finance, get in kind donations and different things, I think to have a grant or community partner like a PNC [Bank] or something like that, that was able to invest in it further, could have probably alleviated some sense of stress while going through the process. Because you would definitely know where your funding was coming from or how you were going to recoup the funding in the end, in addition to ticket prices and different things like that.

I think knowing all the avenues that were out there or what was available to me, I would have spent more time or had somebody on the team spend more time researching that. That’s one of the places where a grant writer comes in handy. If you know anybody that’s interested in grant writing or development and finding those things out for you, or have their fingers on the pulse of these types of opportunities, that can be very helpful.


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