Review of 2013 NEH Grants Reveals Opportunities and Challenges

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The National Endowment for the Humanities has announced their last round of grants in the America’s Historical and Cultural Organization‘s (AHCO) program for fiscal year 2013, and a review suggests that opportunities and challenges await applicants–and NEH.  AHCO offers the largest grants for both planning and implementation of exhibits, programs, and activities for history organizations, and it’s often the one that people think of first for funding from NEH.

NEH awarded twenty-five grants totaling $4.2 million in 2013, with history organizations (i.e., historical societies, history museums, historic sites) receiving ten grants (40 percent) and $1.3 million in funding (32 percent).  That’s pretty good compared to the other categories, such as art museums and universities, although I’ll admit it’s a bit subjective depending on how you categorize an organization (I counted the Peabody Essex Museum as a history organization but could as easily be considered an art museum).  NEH funding has long been known as prestigious but rare (NEH states that about 9 percent of applications are funded) so history organizations are doing pretty well.

A Closer Look

A deeper analysis suggests that the chances of obtaining a grant may be easier for some than others.  When you examine the budgets for these grant recipients, it’s clear that they’re big institutions–their annual revenues were $5 million or more, the median budget was $22 million (based on 2011, the latest data available for all grantees), and the highest budget was $2.3 billion (yes, with a B).  Sure there were awardees with smaller budgets, but they are definitely under-represented.  Among those at the low end of the range, most had budgets of $1 million or more–that’s far above the $250,00-$300,000 annual budget that typically defines a “small museum.”


NEH America’s Historical and Cultural Organization grants for 2013 (click to enlarge)

Secondly, there seems to be a shift between the March and July awards to much larger grants to much bigger institutions.  In the chart above I’ve plotted the size of the grant to the size of the applicant’s budget.  March awards are Green (think spring) and July awards are Red (think summer).  Notice that the July (red) awards tend to fall higher and further to the right than the March (green) awards?  That means that more funds were awarded to larger institutions in July than in March (indeed, I didn’t plot three July grants because the institutions had such large budgets that it collapsed the rest of the chart, so they’re literally off the chart).   This might be a one-time anomaly, but it could suggest that applicants now include the biggest non-profits in the nation (the top three were all universities who have large fundraising departments) or that smaller organizations are submitting fewer applications.  If you’re wondering why there are several grants in a line at $40,000 and $300,000, those are the maximum amounts for planning and implementation grants, respectively, and it seems this shift to bigger and larger is much more pronounced in the implementation grants.

Finally, there are several patterns and outliers.  Most awards went to programs that segregated history according to ethnicity or religion (e.g. Asian, Muslim, African American), few or none on an integrated history.  Most awards represent 1-2 percent of an institution’s budget, but curiously, a few went to organizations where an NEH grant represented an amount of less than 1/10 of a percent and to others where it was 10 percent or more.

What Does This Mean?

For You:  If your organization has a budget of less than $5 million, the chances of receiving a planning or implementation grant through the AHCO is slim, and if your budget is less than $1 million, it’s nearly impossible.  You are competing against the biggest and best development departments in the nation so before your prepare the 20-page narrative, collect letters of commitment from scholars, and assemble all the pieces and struggle with, think hard if it’s worth the time and effort.   If you’re at a small history organization, ask the folks at Iolani Palace or the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association how they did it (and congratulate them, too, on an extraordinary achievement).  Before you’re completely discouraged, you may still want to submit an application.  I always advise my clients that the process of preparing an NEH application is as important as the final product.  It forces an organization to work out a project in sufficient detail that it not only becomes an application for NEH, but can be easily incorporated into a long-range plan or used for other grant applications.  With a looming deadline, the effort to prepare an application moves an important but moribund idea into action.  That is often worth more than the $40,000 awarded in a planning grant (indeed, the work required for a planning grant is basically the same as an implementation grant).

For NEH:  NEH is an embattled federal agency, especially now when they’re threatened with a 50 percent budget cut and without a Chair (I know you’re busy with Syria, President Obama, but for Pete’s sake you must have binders full of historians–please nominate one of them). NEH isn’t making it any easier on themselves.  For years they’ve been accused of funding activities that only interest the elite, and it’s hard to shake that impression when about a third of the recipients had budgets of more than $50 million (that’s more than $135,000 a day).  NEH may argue that they are simply supporting good programs but what’s the perception and impact?  Providing a $120,000 grant to a $2.3 billion organization is like $52 to a $1 million organization.  I’m sure an organization with a $900,000 budget is happy to receive a $300,000 grant from NEH (a third of their budget), but do they have sufficient capacity to handle a grant of this size, especially when they had a $260,000 deficit in 2011?

For Both You and NEH:  There’s lots of interest in ethnicity, race, and religion and I’ll agree it’s been an overlooked aspect of our history, but the solution isn’t to continually focus on them separately.  We need to integrate diverse perspectives and experiences into our interpretation, and reduce the insistence that these topics be treated as add-ons and supplements to our existing programs and activities.  Applicants need to propose and NEH needs to fund more holistic, integrated projects.

If you’d like to explore the data for yourself, I’m providing it in Excel format for your convenience.

9 thoughts on “Review of 2013 NEH Grants Reveals Opportunities and Challenges

  1. Monta Lee Dakin

    Your factfinding confirms what many of us have long thought about NEH and what you yourself just said: it is aimed at larger organizations. For the past 15 years, I have advised folks not to bother if they don’t have a million plus budget or a professional grant writer. NEH is worthy of existing; it just needs to create a new mission that will help it serve the entire museum community. It would do well to follow in the footsteps of IMLS which does serve our museum community well.


  2. Kathie Gow

    Max, thanks for doing this research. I was excited to see these grants for Planning and Implementation, as part of NEH’s Sustaining Cultural Heritage Collections program, posted on the MUSEUM-L listserv last week; it’s exactly what we need to help us make our new home (the Town Hall) a good fit for our small local historical museum, with energy-efficient, cost-effective options for HVAC, lighting, security, and storage. But now that I’ve read your post, I guess you’ve saved me and others I would enlist a huge number of hours and effort. Our annual budget is not only less than $1 million, it’s less than $40,000 (and that’s if you count grants and municipal funding). Why don’t they say in the guidelines, “if you don’t have a budget of $1 million and at least three full-time staff, this is not the grant for you! Please see our grants for small museums.” Then again, even the grants for so-called small museums, especially local historical societies, often have requirements that box us out (like, need to be open 90 days, or 120 days a year). What’s available to help institutions like ours, who are struggling to get our collections inventoried, archivally preserved and made available to the public physically and electronically, move to the next step? Our Mass. town was founded in 1670, and we have a lot exciting historical material, but without outside help, it is going to dicey whether or not we can preserve it fast enough. And we are not alone. Most of the local historical society museums around us are in the same boat. Whately, Sunderland, Hadley, Williamsburg, Cummington…
    Any suggestions, from you or your readers?
    –Nearly Hopeless in Hatfield

    Curator, Hatfield Historical Museum


    1. Max van Balgooy Post author

      My findings are focused on the America’s Historical and Cultural Organizations grant program, thus may not hold true for other grant programs at NEH. For example, I understand the Preservation Division has small grants for preservation supplies and materials that are aimed as smaller institutions, so I suspect the chances of success are much higher. Someday, I’ll analyze all of their programs and develop an unofficial guide to NEH grants. The other good source for federal funding for museums and historic sites is the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), whose application process is shorter and simpler, however, may be just as competitive. That leaves state and local funding sources, which as you’ve discovered, vary greatly. I would ordinarily turn to the state humanities council, but in Maryland, they receive a paltry $50,000 in funding from the state (so low it’s horribly embarrassing; it’s like tipping your waiter a penny–you’re acknowledging and insulting him at the same time). At Homestead Museum in California, we held a series of collections care workshops for local museums and historic sites. We recognized their challenges, so we had lots of generous door prizes that included acid-free boxes, gloves, books, and other supplies thanks to the generosity of Metal Edge West. It was a small shot in the arm to those local organizations, but it is something that could be replicated by others, especially county or state historical societies who are viewed as the leaders in their region (hint, hint).


  3. William Hosley

    This is a fabulous analysis and it is definitely time to lock and load. What we (the small) have going for us is numbers. I figure that if you add up the number of staff, trustees, donors and committed volunteers at all the museums with budgets < 1 million – we number almost 1 million! We have not put this power to work. It is time. I recently had a back and forth with IMLS about exactly this and will now send them a link to this blog. They – like NEH – are in denial. It makes them cringe to think they are elistist – but they are. An astonishing statistic. 35% of the historical orgs in VT have operating budgets < $5000!!! What's astonishing about this – is that even under those circumstances they do things, preserve and present things, keep hope alive. Guess where all those govt millions would do the most good? Bottom UP!!!!


  4. William Hosley

    By the way, the Hatfield Historical Society is spectacular; has spectacular stuff and is a model of what public history is and can be. Nothing that NEH does has more impact – propotionately – than if they’d send an easy $10k/year in their direction – couch change for the biggies – but potentially transformational for the small.


  5. Linda Norris

    Thanks Max, for crunching the data, but there’s one piece I’d really like to know–and am wondering if you could shake it out of NEH. What is the percentage of small (however the definition) who apply to NEH as compared to the percentage of those funded? Lots of questions could raise from that number to move the discussion further. Good luck in finding it!


    1. Max van Balgooy Post author

      I might be able to obtain those numbers easily from NEH, but then again, it may be difficult. A couple years ago I wanted to study the final reports of several projects to learn what succeeded and what didn’t, but when I asked for access, I was told I would have to submit a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. I’ll see what I can learn, but don’t expect an answer soon.


      1. Kathie Gow

        Max, thanks for trying! This would be very interesting to see. Of course, the number of small institutions applying for these NEH grants this COMING year may be down quite a bit after reading this post!


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