Tips on Writing a Successful Grant Proposal

The NEH recently announced deadlines for several digital humanities programs, including the NEH Fellowships at Digital Humanities Centers (Sep. 15), Digital Humanities Start-Up Grants. (Oct. 8), and DFG/NEH Joint Digitization Program Deadline (Oct. 15).  So how do you win one of these grants?  I’ve had the honor and privilege (really, I mean it) of serving on several review panels, which has given me insight into what sets apart excellent proposals.  (Nope, I’m not going to say which panels I served on—let’s say if you won a grant, I was on the panel, and if you didn’t, I wasn’t.)

Before serving on a grant review panel, I sort of pictured it as a smoke-filled room where fat-cats chomping on big cigars exercised all their political might to get pet projects funded.  (OK, not really–but it was mysterious.) But the process is nothing like that—no smoke, no posturing, no arm-wringing.  Instead, the NEH brings together 5 or so experts in the field—often directors of digital humanities centers, faculty who have led digital projects, and others who have both subject knowledge in the humanities and expertise in technology– to evaluate the proposals.  Prior to coming to DC to serve on the panel, the panelists review each proposal and make detailed comments, using the grant guidelines as a rubric.  Panelists rank each proposal either as “excellent,” “very good,” “some merit,” or “not recommended for funding.”  Typically I read each proposal three times: first I give all of the proposals a quick read to get a sense of the whole, then I read more slowly to develop a more detailed understanding of each one, and finally I skim as I write up my comments.  The panel itself typically begins with an NEH official explaining the review process, including the conflict of interest rules.  Then panelists discuss each proposal, beginning with the ones rated most highly.  Each panelist provides his or her initial perspective on the proposal, which is followed by an open, respectful debate about its strengths and weaknesses.  Once the discussion is complete, each panelist offers his or her final ranking of the proposal.  I’m fascinated to hear the different perspectives offered by the other panelists; often I am persuaded to change my rankings based on the discussion.  At the end of an exhilarating and exhausting day, the NEH asks panelists for feedback on the proposal guidelines and the review process, demonstrating their commitment to improvement.

Based on my experience as a reviewer, I think I have insight into what makes a strong proposal.  I should say that I’ve never actually received an NEH grant, so take these suggestions with a grain of salt.

  • If you don’t receive a grant, don’t despair. On the panels on which I’ve served, only about 20% of the proposals get funded, which means that some very strong ones just don’t make it.  But you can always reapply, using the reviewers’ comments to strengthen your proposal.
  • Read the Guidelines: Make sure that your proposed project meets the criteria of the grant program.  Would it be better suited for another grant program?  In your narrative, address explicitly how you meet the review criteria–don’t make the reviewers guess.
  • Make an argument for funding your proposal: Don’t just say what you will do, but why it’s important to do it. What impact will your project have on the field, institution, or community?  How?  How is your proposal innovative?  Strong, relevant letters of support can help you make your argument about the proposal’s significance; it’s impressive when leading scholars testify to a project’s importance, but a stack of weak, generic letters can make a proposal seem, well, desperate.
  • Talk to the Program Officers: They’re there to help.  Often they will review a draft proposal prior to submission, provided that you get it to them at least 6 weeks in advance of the grant deadline.  I’m quite impressed by the staff of the Digital Humanities Office: they’re smart, knowledgeable, energetic, all-around good folks, the kind you would trust to lead one of the most visible funding programs in digital humanities.  In the review panels, they focus not on how weak a proposal is, but how they can help the applicant to make it better.
  • Show that you have technical knowledge: Digital humanities projects demand both sophisticated technical and subject knowledge.  Cite the appropriate standards and best practices and explain how you will apply them.
  • Focus. If you attempt to do too much, reviewers will wonder if you can pull it all off, and question what exactly it is you’re trying to do, anyway.
  • Be realistic. It’s always hard to figure out how long a project will take and how much everything will cost.  Talk to others who have done similar work to get a sense of what it will take to pull off your project.  In the work plan, offer a detailed description of what will be accomplished by what deadline and by whom.  Don’t over-promise; remember, if you win the grant, you’ll actually have to do what you said you would do.
  • Sweat the small stuff: Although reviewers focus on the substance of the proposal, a sloppy application can detract from the overall quality.  Proofread carefully to catch grammatical errors.  Think about the design of the document.  If I see huge margins and jumbo fonts, I wonder if the applicant is just trying to fill up space.
  • Ask to see the reviewers’ comments. Whether you’re successful or not, read the reviewers’ comments, which will likely be full of helpful suggestions about how to improve the project and application.  You’re getting free consulting from 5 or more experts in the field—take advantage of it.
  • Consider serving on a grant review panel. Sure, it’s a lot of work, but worth it. You do get a small stipend, but given that it takes about 3-4 hours to review and comment on each proposal and additional time to travel to DC and serve on the panel, the hourly pay probably works out to about $5 or $6.  But you get to serve the community, spend the day with smart colleagues talking about stuff that matters, and learn about what new ideas and projects are bubbling up.  Perhaps most importantly, I think I now have a better sense of what it takes to write strong application.   As a bonus, sometimes you get your very own plate of chocolate—including Special Dark!–for an afternoon boost.

For a detailed, inside-the-NEH perspective on writing successful applications, see Meredith Hindley’s How to Get a Grant from NEH:  A public service message.
Good luck!

4 responses to “Tips on Writing a Successful Grant Proposal

  1. Lisa, this is a great post! I’d add two more things that I’ve learned from serving on NEH panels. (And I’ll lay even money that we’ll see each other in the hallowed halls of the Old Post Office again soon!)

    One: most grant guidelines clearly outline the criteria on which proposals will be evaluated. Applicants would be smart to make it easy for reviewers to see how particular aspects of their proposals address those criteria. That doesn’t mean you have to structure your proposal in an arbitrary way, but it does mean that you shouldn’t leave reviewers guessing or digging around for the evidence that you’ve met each requirement.

    Two: a solid, thoughtful assessment plan is a must. How will you define success for your project and correct your course along the way to make sure you achieve it? What will your project’s post-mortem teach you and others about this work? And, most of all, what concrete assessment tools and techniques will you use? Before reading a boatload of NEH apps, I had the notion that a decent enough assessment plan involved some vague hand-waving and a promise to think and write about the project when the dust settled. Nope. Committees look for thorough and proactive assessment measures as a signal of your seriousness about the work.

    I’m right there with you on the honor and privilege stuff.

  2. Pingback: Tips on writing a successful grant proposal « Andrea’s Blog

  3. Bethany: Thanks for the great pieces of additional advice. You’re absolutely right–a strong assessment plan is critical.

  4. Thanks so much for this, Lisa (and Beth for the additional comments): this posting is incredibly useful.

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