What Grant Applicants (and Funding Agencies) Can Learn From Van Halen

August 8, 2011 | By Adrianne Fielding | Post a Comment

I am a rock music fan.  A BIG rock music fan.  Let’s leave it at that for the time being.  Even if you don’t like rock music, I’m guessing that if you’re of a certain age, you probably know that Van Halen was one of the first megabands whose live shows were elaborate productions. (David Lee Roth era, please. We shall not speak of the others.)

Many performers — including musicians — are renowned for including meticulous wish lists and seemingly ridiculous demands (aka “riders”) in their contracts with performance venues. Van Halen was one of the first bands to have such a contract rider, which required them to be provided with a bowl of M&Ms — without any brown ones.  If that condition wasn’t met by a given venue, the band had legal justification to (and sometimes did) call off the gig.

Primadonnas?  Excessive frivolity?  No.  Brilliance.

According to David Lee Roth’s autobiography, as referenced by snopes, that rider was buried deep in the technical section of the band’s contract to ensure that the venue had read — and was able to comply with — the show’s extensive safety requirements. Many venues, especially outside major touring markets, had never hosted a show of Van Halen’s scale before.  The band needed to be confident that the venue could meet all of its weight, space and other technical specifications.  If the venue didn’t read the contract thoroughly enough to find the rider, or wasn’t able to follow the simple directions about the bowl of M&Ms, the band wasn’t willing to trust the venue with its safety — and had the justification to pitch a megaband-sized fit about it.

Brilliant.

Isn’t there an uncanny similarity between this tactic and the excruciatingly detailed instructions that funding agencies require applicants to follow? Sure, consistently formatted applications make it easier on reviewers’ eyes and let them compare apples to apples — but my past experience supporting a federal grantmaking agency suggests that there’s more to it than that.  All those spacing requirements, margins, page limits, numbering schemas, order of submission materials … all ways for funders to assess whether your organization will look for and be able to comply with all of the requirements for administering an award. 

Honestly, funding agencies may not have been using that leverage as much as they could be.  But with federal funding getting slashed, competition for grants becoming even tougher, and pressure to improve pre-award reviews increasing — funding agencies may (or perhaps, should) end up looking more closely at which applicants can give them bowls of M&Ms with the brown ones removed, as they decide who to entrust with their grant dollars.

Ignore application instructions at your peril.  Details matter.

(Photo credit: Adrianne Fielding)

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