Take Every Win as a Win

A conversation with Book Arts grant writer, Kathleen Kearnan

This blog post was written as part of the collaboration between Book Arts and Daemen College’s Leadership and Entrepreneurship in the Arts Program.

All Hail Kathy. We often refer to her as our *Saint Kathy* forever guiding us and holding our hands as we put it all out there – taking big risks and hoping for a big win….that we later celebrate with Zoom champagne toasts.

Kathleen Kearnan has worked alongside Book Arts as our grant writer extraordinaire for over 5 years, assisiting our Executive Director, Nicole, through all the steps of the grant writing process: from searching numerous community & regional opportunities, to writing persuasive narratives and illustrating all that Book Arts represents.

Kathy is an excellent grant writer, not only for her skills writing moving passages and articulating outcome data into beautiful prose, but because she cares deeply and wholeheartedly about the success of our applications and the projects that our grant awards support. She is an invaluable part of the Book Arts Team, and her independent position creates the perfectly right-sized approach for a growing organization working within a modest budget. Her work with other cultural organizations only strengthens her relationship to the WNY arts community, and we all regularly get together and gush over her talent as well as her kindness. Working together with Kathy is a truly joyful experience, even in the most stressful of times, and I am endlessly grateful for her support in all of its forms.”

Nicole Cooke

Executive Director, WNY Book Arts Center

There is no doubt that much of Book Arts’s success is a direct result of Kathy’s talent, support and dedication to our organization, and we are so *very* lucky to have her in our corner.

We sat down with Kathy (well, virtually) to learn the ins & outs of the grant writing process for those just starting out. Take a look!

How did you get started with grant writing?

I studied photography at UB and did an internship with CEPA my senior year. Soon after, I was offered a position. The title was Administrative Assistant, but the job was really jack-of-all-trades and at some point I expressed interest in learning more about the grant writing process. This was welcomed by the Directors and they really took me under their wings and gave me the opportunity to develop the skills. Grant writing turned into a career when I left Buffalo in the early 2000s. I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do, and offered to keep writing CEPA’s grants for a while to help us both transition. Twenty-some odd years later, here I am, still actively involved in the Buffalo arts community while also supporting other organizations and causes that are important to me.

Does writing grants for emerging artists differ from grants for organizations?

I think it’s always a little trickier for artists to secure funds than it is for organizations. There are so many more funders available to organizations with not-for-profit status. Many organizations will act as a fiscal sponsor for artists however, to help them access more funds. (A fiscal sponsor receives and administers the grant money for the artist and submits reports on their behalf. They usually retain a small fee from the grant for this service.) The more experience and success you can demonstrate as an artist (or as an organization), the more access you will have to grant funding.

What are any tips or words of wisdom (you’re full of many!) for artists just starting out with writing grants?

My best advice is to not feel too overwhelmed by the process and to EDIT, EDIT, EDIT! There is a bit of an unwarranted mystique around grant writing, but it is its own sort of writing. It’s important to keep in mind that the funder may not know who you are or what you do, and you want to make it as clear and easy as possible for them to understand and buy into your idea. I always try to make the request positive and upbeat and I always try to remember that reviewers are reading many applications in a row and if they get bored or can’t understand the project, they’re likely going to move onto the next one. The biggest challenge, in my opinion, is articulating big ideas in as very few words as possible. Most grants are completed using online forms that limit your response by character count including every space and bit of punctuation, so it takes some practice and lots of editing to get the hang of condensing your thoughts. Its also really important to be thoughtful with your request amount and budget, you want to ask for what you need without inflating costs or undervaluing yourself.

With the nature of grant writing, rejection is always inevitable. How do you best manage this rejection and keep morale and most importantly, fight burnout.

It’s really hard to not take every rejection as a personal affront, and I think even more so for an individual artist than for an organization, but unfortunately it’s just part of the process. Grantors receive more requests than they can fund and they have to make hard choices. There are always dry spells, but there are also times when it feels like every request comes through, so it really is a matter of keeping your chin up and knowing you can’t win ‘em all. It is VERY common to receive less than your request amount, so be sure to take every win as a win, and try not to feel rejected if you receive less than the requested amount. 

What makes a grant successful (specifically for individual artists)?

This is a tough one. A great idea expressed in a clearly articulated grant just might not resonate, and it’s not always clear why. I had an experience with one artist – we worked together for multiple years to get this amazing project off the ground, but for whatever reason, it was just not hitting the right note with funders. We picked it up again one day  after finding a funding opportunity that felt right (years later and with little modification to the original proposal), and the project snow-balled. Sometimes, you have to move on from a project that isn’t gaining traction, but that doesn’t mean you have to give up on it altogether.

A lot of funders will give feedback on your application after decisions are made. It’s a great idea to take advantage of this and to get feedback whenever you can regardless of the outcome. It’s just as important to learn what worked in a successful grant as it is to learn what didn’t with an unsuccessful request. 

What do you find most fulfilling about being a grant writer?

It’s funny, a lot of people really hate grant writing and shudder at the mere mention of it, but I honestly really enjoy the “game” of it all. It’s challenging and satisfying and ever changing. The thing I like most is learning about so many different issues and topics. I almost always have to do research to better understand what it is I’m writing about which broadens my own world view and/or provides an opportunity to learn about something new entirely. I like the deadline driven nature of writing grants, and I LOVE winning awards. 

At the same time and as an independent grant writer, I have great flexibility balancing my workload and family life, which is a real priority for me.


It truly makes me feel like I’m playing a small part in making the world a little better.

This blog post was written as part of the collaboration between Book Arts and Daemen College’s Leadership and Entrepreneurship in the Arts Program.


Join us for a series of three (3) virtual presentations hosted by Book Arts & led by faculty from Daemen College’s Leadership and Entrepreneurship in the Arts Program (LEA), dedicated to advancing leadership opportunities in the arts.

Presentation topics include introductions to: artists as entreprenuers, non-profit leadership, grant writing, marketing & branding, client management, & more!

The virtual Daemen College Speaker Series is intended for artists and arts curious folks interested in learning about or working in a creative field. All experience levels are welcome to attend. Registration is free!


wny book arts center logo