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.”
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 Grants.gov, 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.