On Tuesday, Feb. 21 the UC Davis Office of Research and the Davis Humanities Institute hosted a panel session on writing grant proposals for the National Endowment for the Humanities. The panel included Hsuan Hsu, Carol Hess, Brenda Schildgen, Carl Stahmer, discussing their successful strategies for writing proposals to the NEH.
The panelists, all successful NEH recipients, offered wide-ranging advice on how to craft and revise NEH proposals. In particular, the panel’s advice focused on four aspects of the proposal process:
- Apply, apply, and apply again. All four panelists noted the difficulty in succeeding on an NEH grant on the first attempt. But a rejection is not the end of the process. As Carl Stahmer, Director of Digital Scholarship at the UC Davis Library, noted, rejections come with crucial feedback that, if taken seriously during a revision process, can increase your chances of success in future applications. Stahmer advised the audience that proposal ideas are not rejected, but rather “the way the grant was put together.” Organization, more often than ideas, need to be revised in order to make a successful proposal.
- It’s all in the details. Schildgen emphasized that the proposal is not a place to reinvent the grant application genre. “Do what they tell you to do,” look at the exact wording of the application and follow those directions to the letter. For the teams of reviewers looking at the proposals, missing a section or not following all the directions of the application is the first and easiest way to get your proposal rejected. Don’t give the reviewer the opportunity to say no on a technicality.
- Show how the project is doable. The next best way to be rejected, the panel argued, is to promise too much, or to propose a project that cannot be done within the timeframe of the grant. “Focus on specific deliverables,” Stahmer advised and use the resources of the university, and the Resource Officers of the NEH to craft a budget and timeline that you can actually achieve. Funding agencies’ worst fear is that they will hand someone money, and the project is left unfinished; so presenting a doable project will show the agency that you can plan a project and deliver it on time.
- Do not be afraid to share your proposal with colleagues, friends, anyone who will give you critical feedback on the project. This includes the resource officer of a funding agency. Hsu agreed that getting feedback from others on the project before sending it out to the reviewers allowed him to make important changes to the proposal before it was approved. Hess added that receiving that important criticism early in the proposal process, even when she received conflicting advice on how to improve the proposal, sharpened her own understanding of how to best craft her proposal.
Schildgen added one important bit of advice on NEH grants: applying for and participating in the NEH Summer Institutes serves as an important entrée into the communities of scholars who will possibly review your proposal, as well as serve as recommenders for the grant—a critical step in the process, she emphasized—so these summer programs can benefit scholars who are new to the NEH find people to shepherd their work through to a successful grant.
The Office of Research at Davis (http://research.ucdavis.edu) offers support to find funds and develop grant proposals for the NEH and other funding organizations through the Sponsored Programs Office. The SPO (http://research.ucdavis.edu/proposals-grants-contracts/spo) is also responsible for submitting proposals and accepting rewards on behalf of the Regents of the University of California, for any awards that are granted to the institution, rather than to the individual.
–Kaleb Knoblauch, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral student in the Department of History