How to Find the Best Museum Grant Funding Opportunity

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

December 12, 2018

One of the hardest aspects of the grant acquisition process is finding appropriate funding opportunities that match the museum’s proposed project. Many facets of the grant acquisition process can be taught and replicated, but conducting grant prospect research is an area that will change each time a new project needs funding.

It’s important to remember that funding opportunities are fluid. Some are well established and consistent in their requirements and timing while others can change every few years. Furthermore, a museum’s grant project idea will change from year to year dependent upon what the museum’s needs and interests are. Due to all of these variables, what worked last year may not work this year. For this reason, each time you begin the grant acquisition process you should set aside time to conduct grant prospect research—the act of finding and vetting the best funding opportunities to match your grant project idea.

The ”How” of finding the best funding opportunities includes a “Where” and a “What”. Where do you look to find appropriate funding opportunities and What do you look for to ensure the opportunity is a match?

Where to Look

There are a few methods to use for locating a funding opportunity. You may wish to employ one or more of these methods at a time as they aren’t mutually exclusive.

  • Method #1: There are databases and online search portals that are free or subscription based. Many databases have a search tool where results can be narrowed by type of institution and project. Similarly, internet search engines can and should be used. A rough internet search can be helpful as it connects you directly with funding agency websites and doesn’t skew the search based on potentially outdated information or pay-to-play subscription schemes.
  • Method #2: Review who has funded your museum in the past (if applicable) and projects at peer museums. If a funding agency has awarded grants to the museum or peer institutions in the recent past then they are likely candidates to fund the museum’s current project. Check out peer projects in-person or online to see who awarded funding. There will be a plaque or sponsorship note identifying funding partners. Or reach out to colleagues who have received funding awards in the past and ask which agencies they would recommend looking at.
  • Method #3: Attend conferences, webinars, and other events where funding agencies who are aligned with museums will be. Agencies will usually have vendor booths at conferences; they encourage museum staff to ask them questions and pitch grant project ideas to determine if the agency is a good match. Both private and public funding agencies also offer webinars and workshops (virtual and in-person) in order to assist museum staff with the application process and ensure competitive grant applications.

Any of these methods provide a good place to start, but more in-depth vetting will be needed before you can dive into the application.

What to Look For

Over time you may develop a list of funding opportunities that generally fit the museum’s work. However, it’s always best to review these opportunities and examine any changes in requirements or funding focus, and to confirm the opportunity matches the current grant project idea. Here are the top seven areas to research and vet in order to determine if a funding opportunity is a strong prospect for the museum.

  • 1. Is the funding agency still active and regularly distributing funding? Consistent and reliable funding can be an issue for both private and municipal funding agencies. Verifying if the agency is still actively funding projects should be the first thing to check.
  • 2. What types of organizations are allowed to apply? There are the usual criteria to meet such as being a nonprofit organization, but there can also be requirements regarding what type of museum, the geographic location of the museum, etc.
  • 3. What types of projects are allowed to apply? Even if a museum fits the sought-after organization type, the project must also be a fit. Funding agencies will post descriptions of what types of projects are eligible for funding.
  • 4. What are the eligibility requirements beyond museum and project type and can they be met? Many agencies choose to provide further eligibility guidelines in order to narrow their scope of eligible applicants and ensure they receive grant project ideas that are suitable to their mission. This is an area that can be overlooked in the enthusiasm to apply, but if the museum misses even one of the stated eligibility criteria the application will be rejected.
  • 5. What projects have received awards in the past and for how much? This can offer the most insight when researching a funding prospect. It can sometimes be difficult to interpret what a funding agency is looking for as far as desirable projects; seeing a list of what has been previously funded can offer very valuable information. All municipal funding agencies are required to post previous awardees, whereas private funding agencies are not required—though many do.
  • 6. What is the award amount and is it enough (no more, no less) to fund the proposed project? It can be very tempting to apply for funding opportunities where award amounts are much more than the proposed project will require. Similarly, museums may feel the pressure to apply for any and all funding, even if it isn’t sufficient to successfully complete the project. Applying for too much funding will weaken your application as you won’t be able to prove why it needs the excess in award. Applying for too little funding will mean that the project won’t be done at the scale it was originally created. Funding agencies will see that the award isn’t enough to successfully complete the project and will reject the application.
  • 7. When is the deadline and is it feasible for the museum to attempt an application? Finally, the last item to vet is the deadline. If the museum project can wait, the sweet spot for finding a funding opportunity is three months prior to the application deadline. Three months is typically enough time to leisurely gather the materials needed for the application. Having a deadline sooner than that, especially if it is less than one month to the deadline, can put a tremendous amount of pressure on staff and it will increase the chances of submitting a sub-par application.


Once a funding opportunity has made it through the seven vetting areas it can officially be included in the museum’s prospect list. A template to record funding opportunities and the details that need to be known for a successful grant application ought to be created. At the end of each review, record your evaluation on the strength of the museum and funding opportunity match. If there are notable strengths or weaknesses to the application this should also be captured in the report for future reference.

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody is a guest author for Lucidea’s Think Clearly Blog. Rachael is the Owner of Rachael Cristine Consulting, and provides services to museums, libraries, and archives. Previously she was at the Freer|Sackler Museum of the Smithsonian Institution and the Oregon Wine History Archive at Linfield College. She is active in Northwest Archivists and the Society of American Archivists, and is an alumna of the Archives Leadership Institute, a National Historical Publications & Records Commission (NHPRC) program.
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