Grant Application Tips (after a first attempt failure)
In early October (2016), I submitted an application for a grant from the Ontario Media Development Corporation (OMDC). They have many grants available, but the one I focused on was for the Interactive Digital Media (IDM) Fund – Concept Definition (aka a Prototype), which is typically offered twice a year (April-ish and October-ish deadlines).
This grant is extremely competitive and unfortunately we did not receive the grant. A few months ago (February 2017), I had a follow-up discussion with a member of OMDC and received some great feedback on my application and why the professional council did not recommend us for the grant. Below are eight things I found helpful from that discussion and just going through the process.
1. Start Early
If you are looking at the application guidelines for a grant and are staring blankly with your mouth agape, don’t worry, you’re not alone! There is a lot of work to be done so you want to make sure to get started as early as possible. This refers to not only to the application, but also the concept for the project that you will be applying with.
The Project Concept. This probably goes without saying, but before you start filling in your grant application, you want to have a project in mind that you are passionate about. The judges for this grant (and probably most other grants) are industry professionals and will be able to tell if your heart and mind is in it when they read your pitch document.
For our pitch document, I ended up spending a little cash (~$1,000) to get some concept art done to try to sell my design, in the hopes that it would 1) show that I was serious about the project 2) make it look more presentable and professional 3) elaborate visually on the descriptions I was providing. I feel like this approach worked, but you need to keep in mind that art takes time to create and to refine it to match your vision. Basically what I’m trying to say is that even the pitch document, which you would think would be easy to put together, can take a fairly long time to complete and it’s a good idea to start thinking about it as early as possible.
The Grant Application. This specific grant probably has the fewest requirements of all the grants available to me and still took approximately 1-2 months (on and off) to finish. OMDC provides an online portal that outlines all of the documents you need and allows you to upload them piecemeal. It will give you a good idea of how much stuff you need to do, so the earlier you look at this, the better.
The two things that took me the longest were the production schedule and the budget as they are essentially linked and if you make a change to one, it will need to be reflected in the other (in terms of project length).
2. Connect with the program consultant
OMDC offers information sessions about the grant and application process. These are in-person sessions if you live close enough to Toronto or a web conference link otherwise. If you cannot connect through an information session, you should definitely make the effort to call or email an OMDC representative as connecting with the program consultant was invaluable. She was deeply familiar with the requirements for the grant and quickly answered any questions I had. It will save you a ton of time and you can be confident that you are filling in the application correctly.
3. READ, RE-READ, AND READ AGAIN!
The guidelines for the application are pretty detailed and you want to make sure that you have a firm grasp on what is required before you submit (and before you begin working on the application). There is a lot of information to absorb and small details can easily be missed. The most important initial guideline to look at is the one about eligibility. If your company is not eligible, you don’t want to waste your time with the rest of the application.
During my application, I almost missed a really straight forward guideline about the naming conventions for files submitted through the online portal. Don’t give them any reason to reject your application! Follow all the guidelines!
4. Tailor your application to what the judges want to see
OMDC has a specific breakdown of what they are looking for and what percentage of the application each document will count towards your overall score. Below is the breakdown when I applied (but this could change and it will be found in the grant guidelines):
As you can see here, the last two bullets have the most weight, but you don’t want to forget about the others if you want to maximize your chances. However, if time becomes tight, you want to make sure that you spend your time polishing the areas that matter the most.
5. Have some team members in mind before you start
When I applied, the track record of the team only attributed to 15% of the application, but this is a little misleading as the team members indirectly contribute to all of the other criteria of the application as well (with the exception of the project concept itself). For example, if you have a senior programmer on staff for the project, they will be able to improve the feasibility of the project, make your schedule more achievable, require less management, etc….which all in turn effect the budget. Likewise, if you had a junior on staff, they generally will not be able to produce as much as the senior programmer, will cost less, but can cause the project to run longer.
For our application, I knew a senior designer that was a perfect fit for the project and had worked with us in the past. The downside was that he was based outside of Ontario. I made the decision that I would sacrifice his lack of contribution to the Ontario economy due to all the other perks that he brought to the project. It’s quite the balancing act!
FEEDBACK I RECEIVED
6. Minimize risk (in terms of the business and financials)
This was the biggest problem with my application. When I applied, my team was comprised of two artists (one senior, one intern), two designers (one senior, one intern) and myself as the programmer/producer. This meant there was really no redundancy built into my team and they thought I was significantly lacking the production staff required to manage a team of this size. They also thought I was expecting too much out of the interns (based on my production schedule). I had made a few mistakes when filling out the budget in regards to staff allocations and salaries, which could have contributed to this, but overall these two criticisms were very valid.
In regards to financials, I was applying as the lone backer of the project and was probably dipping into my personal finances a little too much for their liking for a prototype. This definitely would have hurt the overall potential for growth of the company as this was just for a prototype and not a finished product that would generate income….again, more risk.
Being the lone backer was also a risk in terms of production as there was no one else with “skin in the game”. They were worried that if some of my staff left, there would be no one (specifically on the art side of things) to really buckle down and see the project through. I can see their point of view on this and it’s definitely something to consider when I apply again in the future.
I had overextended the scope of my project (typical problem) and also the scope of my management ability. Essentially, the judges thought that I was trying to complete too much in two ways:
1) The amount of work I proposed was more than what they considered was appropriate for a prototype (and looking back, I totally agree with them). Without getting into specifics, I had essentially tried to cram about 35% of the total project scope into this prototype phase of the project.
So in general, make sure that you look at the project as a whole and then make sure that your prototype fits properly into the overall scope.
2) My production schedule was too aggressive. The judges thought that I was expecting too much from my team, especially the interns, and didn’t think I had enough production staff to handle everything I was proposing. Interns are always a wildcard, in terms of productivity, and the only reason I had originally planned to include them in the project was to booster the benefits to the Ontario economy.
In this case, I overstepped and should have just scaled back the team and lengthened the schedule.
8. Don’t be too locked in on theme and style
Remember when I told you I had spent money on concept art? Well, it may not have been the best idea. I had a very specific art style and theme in mind for this game and reflected that in many areas of my pitch document. The judges were not convinced that this style would succeed in the market and they seemed to think that I was very inflexible on it.
While I do still think that the style and theme fit perfectly with my concept, I should have not pushed it so hard in my application. I should have included plans to perform focus testing on a variety of art styles to see which ones resonate with the intended audience the most. After all, I still want the game to sell and if it turns out that no one likes my art style choices, then it’s probably best to go in another direction!
Thanks for reading and hopefully this helps someone out there! For more information on OMDC and the IDM Fund, click the links below: