Last month I had the opportunity to attend a regional NEH conference, including an overview of the NEH grant programs, question and comment periods, and a mock panel session offering strategies for application-writing. I walked away with numerous valuable tips and tricks for crafting a competitive NEH proposal. If you’re interested in writing a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant, OPD along with the help of Dr. Peggy Wright-Cleveland in the Office of Faculty Development, are happy to assist you in your NEH proposal development!
Before writing, review the valuable slides provided by Dr. Daniel Sack, a NEH Senior Program Officer. The slides breakdown the desired activities and products for each NEH program! (Conference Slides)
Top Tips and Tricks
Daniel provided conference attendees with the behind-the-scenes information about what NEH reviewers and program officers find to be the most important for NEH proposals.
- Daniel stated emphatically that one of the best ways to improve your proposal writing skills is to review other proposals. They are always looking for panelist. Contact Daniel if you are interested in serving on a review panel. They need niche experts. If you would like to know who at FSU has already served on a NEH panel, contact me.
- In panelist, NEH would like sympathetic readers, in different career stages, from diverse institutional types, from different parts of the country, with differences in subfields but also with more general humanities specialties; approximately half of the NEH panelist have NEH prior experience/funding.
- NEH has an online tool to help you choose the appropriate NEH program (out of ~60 programs) for your application and work.
- NEH’s tool for looking at prior grants or searching grants by area can help you to locate an example of a successful proposal…or ask OPD to do that for you! Previously funded grants can serve not as a template, but as an example for proposal structure or tone.
- Sample budgets and templates are provided on their site, e.g., this one.
- When to apply? When your project is far enough along to know the challenges & you have already done some research/article, but still need more work & more writing. You could also apply earlier to develop a NEH relationship & to get important feedback on your project.
One area of the proposal that requires the most attention is the way you present the significance of your work. Make sure that after reading your proposal the reader can tell: who is the audience who needs this work and how will the information change what they do.
Making a case
When making your case, Daniel suggested that you consider the following:
- Put your work into a larger context
- Show how your project fits with other projects
- Show how your project is building upon prior work and taking a new direction
- Less known subjects need more contextual help
- Intrigue the reviewers/readers; help them see your passion
- The most common review comment: “unfocused or vague”
- Make sure that your project description is realistic/feasible
- Avoid jargon
- Follow outline in guidelines—Make sure that in the first paragraph you grab attention & tell what you are going to do.
- If updating dissertation, tell how you will expand on it or take it in a different direction
- Try to find ways to connect non-discipline reviewers to the work with things most people know about. You want to most importantly be an authority on the topic, but adding just a dash of un-forced humor is great – in other words, make it interesting. Story telling can also be okay within the proposal…the proposal writing shows what the writing will be like in the actual work/end-product.
Letters of Support
- The best letter writers for your letters of support are those individuals who are experts in the same field as the proposed work, and if there are two different fields, it’s helpful to have letter writers from each of the fields. The reviewers may not be in the specific field. The letters can help them to believe that your project is indeed important for your field(s).
- Discuss your application w/ your letter writers. The best letter writers are those who can express the significance of the project.
Project Timeline/Work Plan
- Give a specific, detailed timeline & make it based on experience by how long similar projects took you
- Let the reviewers know a timeline for the completion of the projects parts and outcomes, what has been completed, & what still needs to be completed
- If you’ve been previously funded that looks good, but you should have a good timeline/work-plan section, for sure, if you’ve had funding to support prior work.
Communicating with the Program Manager
- You cannot send draft to review by the PM beforehand but you can ask questions about appropriate programs
- Check out OPD’s advice on how to effectively and professionally communicate with an agency program manager/coordinator HERE
- For some programs (NOT for the summer stipends or fellowship!), you can send a draft at least 6 weeks prior to the grant deadline to the program manager to get feedback—not at all as part of the review process, but could still be very helpful. After the award notifications, PIs can request the evaluations. Can also ask PM to clarify reviewer’s comments.
Panel Review & NEH Proposal Evaluation Criteria for Fellowships & Summer Stipends
***Each program has different review criteria! So look on the site for your specific program’s review criteria
There are five review criteria to also consider while writing your proposal.
- Intellectual significance – you’ll need to back this up with context for the (most likely included) reviewers who do not know if it’s new & significant.
- Quality – as an interpreter of the humanities
- Quality of the concept—Are individual pieces interesting?
- Feasibility/dissemination— including descriptions of what kind of audience would benefit
- Likelihood to complete
Rating Scale: E: excellent, VG: very good, G: good, SM: Some merit, NC: not competitive
- The program manager is the chair of the panel with the purpose of leading the discussion and not to promote or refute particular proposals.
- Ratings are given by each reviewer prior to the review panel meeting & only the top candidate are discussed. During the meeting each competitive proposal is discussed, final comments are made, and the final grade is given.
- These best proposals and their final grades are organized by the program manager and then are sent to the National Council (i.e., 26 humanities professionals appointed by the president and approved by the senate). Roughly 1 out of 12 are funded, but this depends on the budget.
First, NEH creates a panel—based on discipline. Proposals are evaluated by peers, e.g., faculty, librarians (who read & provide evaluations), NEH staff (program managers), the national council, and the NEH chairman, who makes the final decision.
If you’ve received a summer stipend and are applying for a fellowship, you’ll want to state that the summer stipend work helped you to get ready to complete the work for the fellowship application, and explain how.
Summer stipend reviewers post review comments online. The reviewers never meet.
Last summer 1000 proposals w/ 40 panels w/ 4 people each sorted roughly disciplinary, preliminary comments based on criteria & grade, meet/discuss, give final comments; PM takes the comments & chooses who they think should get funded; then choose across all on how many the PM can recommend based on the budget; send comments to the national council.
NEH Funding Stats
Fellowships: submitted 982; funded 79 (~8%)
Faculty Awards: submitted 125; funded 13 (~10%)
Summer stipend: Submitted 832; funded 66 (~8%)
Also, if interested in applying to NEH, Dr. Peggy Wright-Cleveland, Director of FSU Faculty Development, is our point person for NEH applications. She has a network of scholars who will review proposals. Dr. Wright-Cleveland also hosts faculty proposal writing sessions.
If you have a promising proposal, but you need to first have a discussion with a NEH program officer, consider applying for a FSU Federal Agency Travel (FAT) grant to fund your trip.