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5 Tips to Perfect Your Grant Proposal

By Rounak Maiti

A yellow dollar sign overlayed on screenshots of IDA's Grant Writing Workshop with Dana Merwin, Zippy Kimundu, Meena Nanji and ASL Interpreter Mara Bassani-Santamaria, against a dark pink background.

Many filmmakers have a certain anxiety about submitting their films to funders, and with the pandemic shaping our capacities and capabilities in the documentary world, that anxiety has only grown within our communities. How do you ensure that your grant proposal stays strong, clear and focused despite the circumstances? On April 30, IDA Program Officer Dana Merwin sat down with Meena Nanji and Zippy Kimundu, the directors of the IDA Enterprise Documentary Fund grantee film Testament, to discuss how their film successfully secured IDA support and other funding through a strong application. The full recording with subtitles and ASL interpretation is also available here, as well as the transcript, full Zoom chat and presentation slides.

Here are some useful things to keep in mind as you begin crafting another application for your upcoming project:


When your grant proposal isn’t quite there, there can be a whole host of reasons why. But before diving into the specifics of your application, be sure to keep these five simple actions in mind: 

  • Describe the story out loud: The story must be exceptionally clear to grantmakers. Speaking about the story and the characters with your team and peers will help generate writing focal points and elements. If you’re solo, consider making an audio recording of yourself telling the story. Play it back to hear what stands out. 
  • Use short, active sentences: This style makes your writing more concise and efficient. It creates a narrative that is not only easier to write but also engaging to read.
  • Describe visual scenes: This is important when your application doesn’t have a visual sample. Grantmakers should have as clear a picture as possible of what you intend to create.
  • Ask others to read the proposal: Don’t be shy to ask for your help from your fellow filmmakers or friends! Feedback from those unfamiliar with the project will give you insight to what funders may also find compelling, confusing or lacking. Look for consensus among readers before making changes.
  • Don’t procrastinate. Rushing to the finish line creates unnecessary errors and stress. Create a calendar with grant deadlines and alerts.

Context and Clarity

While the importance of authorship is explicitly stated in IDA grant applications, keeping it in mind will undoubtedly strengthen all your grant proposals. When Meena and Zippy applied for the IDA Enterprise Documentary Fund for Testament, these elements were very important:

Context: Verbalize what you’re investigating and the story’s connection to the “big picture” or history. In the case of Testament, this involved writing about the history of the British colonization of Kenya and its residual effects today.

Clarity: Articulate your main character or narrative and how it connects to the context. In the case of Testament, this involved writing about how the protagonist—Wanjugu Kimath’s father,the inspirational leader of the Kenyan independence movement, who was secretly killed and disposed of by the British. We now have our entry point—the film promises to tell the story of Wanjugu’s search for her father’s grave, and embed it into the history and context of Kenya. 


Why are you making this film and telling this story? For Testament, this was penned as the belief that Kenyans should tell their own story. While Zippy and Meena are both Kenya-born, their British education was heavily whitewashed. They acknowledge this, and seek to correct their own understanding of their country’s history using Wanjugu’s story as the vehicle.

As Dana explained in the workshop: “What made the story of Testament exceptional to us as funders is that we had maybe heard of this story before, but we had never heard of it being told in this way.” In their application, Zippy and Meena often articulated their main story in the form of questions, demonstrating their commitment to uncovering a story, rather than conveniently walking into one. (“What will she find?” or “What will she learn?” etc.) “Just acknowledging that you’re asking those questions gives us a chance to fill in the gaps, which is ideal” remarked Dana. “We don’t just want to hear about how absorbed you are by an overarching topic or theme. If you stay fully focused on your story, then the themes will emerge naturally.

The Budget Tells the Story

Grantors can ask for a whole range of different budgets, and filmmakers have to adapt their applications to fit each. For instance, if your film is being shot in Kenya, like Testament, you will need to factor in travel, insurance, permits and more. Your proposal must reflect those considerations.

“You really need to do a lot of research” said Meena. “Find out how much every step of your film costs and how much time they’ll take. You have to be sort of micro about the entire process; once you’re done, take a step back and ensure that you haven’t crossed the budget requirements of the fund.” She also mentioned the importance of being truthful in conveying your budgets. or the IDA Enterprise Documentary Fund production grant, for instance, if you request the maximum allotment from the fund, which is $100,000, you will need to justify that request by mapping out exactly why you need each of those one hundred thousand dollars. 

Learn How To Navigate Rejection

Testament received its fair share of rejections. As Zippy discussed in the workshop, “We had a year, two years of silence after our initial roll of acceptances. But our character and story [were] still developing and we decided to stick with it despite not winning any proposals or applications. It is critical to stick to the story as much as you can.” Perfecting your grant proposal is an ongoing process. As your story develops, so will your application. Consider your grant application as a blueprint for your film and not just a requirement for funding. Many IDA grantees have said they turned to their grant application as a guide not only while in production but when they begin the edit of their film

“It’s very important to not take things personally and make sure your story keeps developing, even if grants don’t come through”, Meena remarked. “For instance, we only received support from Chicken & Egg Pictures this year after four years of getting rejected. So don’t give up; power through any and all rejections that come your way—your film deserves it!”

The deadline to apply for IDA's Enterprise Documentary Fund production grant up to $100,000, is April 19, 2021. To plan your other grants calendar and find funding opportunities, visit the IDA Grants Directory.