How to Write a Successful Humanities Grant

In the many grant writing workshops I teach throughout the United States and Canada, participants who are interested in humanities grants frequently ask me what their odds of being funded are, and if there is a magic formula to obtaining a grant. Given that thousands of applications are submitted yearly to the National Endowment for the Humanities, competition is fierce. My advice is to make sure to address the following critical guidelines to greatly improve your chances of being funded:

Read Previously Funded Proposals

Read previously funded proposals or abstracts for the agency to which you are submitting your grant. The National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts offer complete sample applications of previously funded proposals on their websites. Knowing what a good grant looks like helps in crafting your own grant application.

Read the Guidelines

Carefully read the application guidelines. They contain valuable information, including how to assemble your grant, the review criteria, types of activities supported, and all the necessary details that need to be followed in order to be funded. Many grants are eliminated during the first phase of the review process simply because the guidelines were not followed.

Know the Audience

Know the audience for whom you are writing. Are the reviewers specialists in your field, or are they familiar with your area, but not necessarily experts? Will panels be interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary? Will the funding agency send your proposal to individual outside experts or will the review take place in-house? Knowing your audience is key to knowing how to write your proposal.

Talk to the Program Officer

Contact and ask questions of the Program Officers at the funding agency. Often, they will review a two or three page concept paper of your proposal and give important advice. These should be submitted at least six weeks prior to the grant deadline, so that the staff will have time to reply, and you will have time to make any necessary alterations to your project.

Address Four Key Questions

A proposal should clearly answer four main questions: 1. What are you going to do? 2. How will you do it? 3. Why is it significant? 4. Why are you the right person to do it?

Plan the Work

A clear plan of work gives the readers a sense of where you have been, where you are now, and what you plan to accomplish. If you received previous grants to support your work- mention them. The fact that other funding agencies feel your work is important gives strength and credibility to your project.

Think Big

It is important to think big. Emphasize the forest, not just the trees. Speak of the larger themes and methodologies and avoid getting lost in the details. Clarity and conciseness are important. The reviewers should not have to dig through a mass of details or a discourse that seems impenetrable. At the same time, your grant needs to maintain a strong focus. Think carefully about what you can accomplish in the grant period. Your project should be ambitious, but it should not be unrealistic. If you promise too much, the reviewers will notice.

Convince the Reviewers

Explaining the significance of your grant is very important. Clearly articulate what contributions your work will make to scholarly and humanistic knowledge. Here is where it helps to think big. Explain why anyone should care about your project. Can it pass the “so what” test? What difference will it make? Don’t assume the self-evident importance of your research. There may be various projects similar to yours during a particular grant cycle. Why is yours better than the others? You need to explain why your project deserves the grant.

Showcase Your Expertise

Clearly demonstrate that you are especially qualified to do this project. Do you possess unique skills essential to conducting your project? Showcase your expertise. If you have a strong publication record, let the reviewers know. A strong track record on other projects offers good evidence that you will complete the work in a timely fashion. Explain what function your project is likely to play in your professional development.

Being Persistent is Important

Funding agencies have a limited amount of funds to support grant requests. Often, some excellent grants are not funded because of budgetary limitations. If your project does not receive funding, it is important to contact the Program Officer and find out why it was rejected. Knowing why you were not funded will help strengthen your application for the next deadline. Persistence is key.

No magic formulas exist, but a successful applicant knows that there are specific steps that need to be followed to increase your chances of being awarded the grant. The steps listed above will certainly help increase your probability of success.

Maria Esformes

In her extensive career at such institutions as Harvard and the University of Victoria, British Columbia, she has written and received major research and programmatic grants from numerous foundations and federal agencies.

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