Apply for Your First Grant
Applying for a grant in the humanities or arts is a New Year’s resolution that often lasts as long as those to diet or exercise. For faculty in these less fundable areas, it is hard to work up enthusiasm for the hunt. Part of the reason is the sheer difference in funding available for fields inside and outside the humanities. The National Institutes of Health funds health researchers with about $25 billion in grants per year, and the National Science Foundation bestows about $7 billion. Meanwhile, in its bedroom under the stairs, the National Endowment for the Humanities gives out $146 million, while the National Endowment for the Arts is budgeted at $155 million. By way of comparison, the budgets of these two arts/humanities agencies are equivalent to NSF’s grants in Arctic and Antarctic programs.
Many more professors intend to apply for grants than ever do so. On my own campus, a mid-sized regional public university, about 7 percent of faculty members have been principal investigators on funded projects, leaving many colleagues on the sidelines. With the decline in state revenues for many institutions, many initiatives that might have been funded by universities in the past now depend on external grant resources. So whether you are a historian, artist or poet, knowing how to apply for external funding can help you advance your professional goals.
Last year, I worked as a faculty associate at our campus research development office, helping colleagues identify and apply for grants. This process helped me think about grant-seeking strategies in more systematic ways, observing how a wide variety of faculty approached the task. I have also been a funded PI myself, with over $3 million in funding over the past 5 years. The strategies listed below are not guaranteed to win your project a grant, but can help give you the best odds of your project being funded. Over time, and multiple attempts, these strategies can pay dividends.
Resolution 1: Find a focus for the project. One way to do this is to write a one-page document that summarizes a single idea for a research or other project. This can help determine sources of funding, but can also reveal whether a project is sufficiently narrow for funding. Many times, faculty members believe they have a simple idea for a grant, only to find out that on paper it is really three or four related ideas. Like our students when they write papers, narrowing and sharpening strengthens the grant proposal.
Resolution 2: Build a radar screen for opportunities. Search systems such as SPIN, SMARTS, and the Foundation Directory can help faculty locate relevant opportunities, for both government and foundation grants. Grant management systems such as inforready4grants can be used to both locate sources and to manage the application process. Think broadly and search widely for agencies and institutions that might fund your project, or part of it. In some cases, arts or humanities programs may change agencies as a result of becoming viewed as more central to economic well-being. In Michigan, arts grant programs have become part of funding for statewide economic development, rather than as part of the state’s humanities agency.
Resolution 3: Build a team to help you. In some programs, such as humanities research fellowships, one applicant might suffice. But for anything larger, it is difficult to make the case that a single faculty member can do the job. In many cases, an evaluator is the key to developing a strong proposal, as that person can help set out goals, objectives and measures in a systematic way.
Resolution 4: Contact the individual listed to answer questions about the grant program – usually a program officer. Once a match has been made of program and project, locate the relevant project officer (usually listed on the webpage or solicitation), and then contact that individual, using the one-page summary as a starting point for discussion. The purpose of this initial contact is to find out whether the project really fits what the funder wants, and to find out any relevant tips or key points that are not in the Request for Proposals (RFP). Skipping this step is most often behind grant applications being rejected without a score by agencies.
Program officers will vary in helpfulness, but they are a key to finding out what it really takes to get funded. At some agencies (e.g., National Endowment for the Humanities) program officers may be willing to read a draft of the proposal and offer feedback. Particularly helpful program officers may encourage you to resubmit the next time the grant is offered. If a program officer lets you know that a project does not fit into the guidelines, take the advice and look elsewhere. While you may feel a project has been unjustly denied, ultimately, the program officer may have saved you a lot of wasted effort.
Resolution 5: Write, edit, rewrite. If a grant is worth pursuing, you should be prepared to commit to applying for it at least twice. This means being prepared for initial rejection, then putting in time responding to the review comments and resubmitting. Being prepared to write the grant twice helps take the pressure off of the first submission, and to put more emphasis on the rewriting process.
When a grant is rejected, there are often (but not always) comments available from reviewers. Grant comments from an agency need to be taken with a grain of salt, but seriously. Sometimes the message is "never apply again." There are times, when having given it your all, you realize that you will never get a grant from a program – such as my efforts to get the NEH to fund a humanities radio program. Other times, the message is that you are close, and with some changes, you are on the way to being funded. Have a colleague read your comments if it is too painful, and to make sure you are not missing anything. If no comments are available, talking to a program officer or talking to previous recipients of the grant may give you ideas about how to revise.
If you are funded, count yourself among a select group in the academy. Funded projects in the arts and humanities are rare, and I sometimes tell people that $1 in the humanities is worth about $10 in funding in science and technology fields.
Russell Olwell is the director of the Institute for the Study of Children, Families and Communities at Eastern Michigan University, where he wrote a GEAR UP grant to fund work with 800 low-income high school students and their families.