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Advice for Grant Seekers in the Cultural Heritage Communities

The following information was collected in preparation for a presentation for the DC2010 Joint Annual Meeting of the Council of State Archivists (COSA), the National Association of Government Archives and Records Administrators (NAGARA), and the Society of American Archivists (SAA) in August 2010. Updates, additions, or corrections may be sent to Christa Williford, cwilliford [at] clir [dot] org.


  1. My institution and/or I have never written a grant before, but we sure need help. What do you suggest we do first?
    • NYSA: Identify the problem or issue that you need to resolve, as well as the best solution to solve the problem and why you chose that solution. After you have these clearly in mind, start looking for an appropriate grant program. Be sure to read the program’s guidelines thoroughly to make sure the problem you are solving and your choice of solution fit with its requirements. If you are not sure from reading the guidelines, contact the funding body and ask.
    • NHPRC: After defining your needs, and reading grant announcements closely, then you may also want to ask for sample successful applications. Reading these applications may help you see how to structure your application even if your project is different. In addition, there are several books and websites about writing effective proposals. You may wish to check with your local library or with fundraising department if there is one at your institution.
    • CLIR: Reading the information on our website, especially our guidelines, is critical. Some may find it helpful to talk with successful applicants from previous years, but since our program emphasizes the value of innovation, this is not always the case. We do hold the proposals we receive as confidential, so applicants must approach previous recipients directly to request copies, which for various reasons they may not be able to provide. One of the most difficult, but most valuable, things an applicant can do is to form an alliance with another institution with similar needs and formulate a collaborative project. One way to look for potential partners is to browse through our program Registry, which is a public feature of our online application system that contains basic information about the collections nominated for cataloging in all prior cycles. We get far more high-quality applications than we can possibly fund, and so there are many strong ideas and interesting collections yet to be cataloged represented in our Registry.
    • NEH: Concentrating first on your own ideas, priorities, and needs and then looking to the funding opportunities is really important. Proposals that come across simply as responses to a funding announcement are rarely competitive. On the other hand, doing some research on the landscape of relevant grant programs can inspire some creative thinking and set in motion some valuable collaborations and partnerships, both within and outside your institution. Do take a look at sample successful applications — NEH offers links to several of these on the web pages for each of its grant guidelines. And by all means, don’t be shy about sharing your ideas with program staff. Our role is to serve as a gateway, not as gatekeeper.
  2. We’ve gotten a grant, but things are not going exactly as planned. What should I do as project manager?
    • NYSA: Contact the funding agency as soon as you are aware of any problems. Do not wait until you are within three months of the closing date of the project: the sooner you let the agency know, the better. Most agencies will work with you to formulate alternate strategies that can help resolve the problem and get your project back on schedule.
    • NHPRC: Do let the agency know of any significant changes in term of finances, personnel, or performance. If you are going faster then planned, let your program officer know. If your agency is having financial difficulties, let the program officer know. The worst thing to do is wait.
    • NEH: Take a deep breath—many have gone there before you. A grant application is a plan, and plans have a way of needing adjustment when they are implemented. The same holds true for budgets. Communication of changes or anticipated changes, especially in the form of key project personnel turnover or major budget reallocation needs, is important and will, in all likelihood, serve to help you realign things in the best way possible.
  3. Our project has yielded some really exciting results. Can you help us publicize this?
    • NYSA: We are more than happy to help you publicize anything exciting that comes from your project. This kind of publicity not only helps you, it helps the funding agency.
    • CLIR: It is important that our organization keeps track of the accomplishments of our grant recipients to be of service to future applicants and to plan for the future of our program, including justifying requests for continued funding. For these reasons, we like to keep the information available on our website as current and thorough as possible, as well as highlighting the most unique project findings in publications like our newsletter, so we really appreciate hearing about our recipients’ progress.
    • NHPRCDitto. In addition to newsletters, we also have a Facebook page where we like to spread the word about discoveries and accomplishments, so let us share in the good news.
    • NEH: We, too, are delighted to receive news of such outcomes. NEH is always eager to convey the broad importance of the humanities to society, and showcasing examples of the work of our grantees is one of the key ways we do this. We, too, have joined Facebook, in addition to leaturing selected projects on our website and in our widely-distributed Humanities magazine.
  4. Generally speaking, what are the characteristics of a strong proposal? A weak proposal?
    • NYSA: A strong proposal is focused, with a clearly identified problem, a well thought-out solution, including a discussion of alternative solutions and why you chose the particular one you did, and a well articulated statement of the benefits this project will bring to your institution. A strong proposal is written with the reviewer in mind. There is usually no provision for reviewers to contact applicants with questions, so a strong proposal is not going to make assumptions that may leave the reviewers confused. A weak proposal is one that is written too quickly and that attempts to do too much with too little explanation and justification.
    • CLIR: A strong proposal for our program embodies all of these things and also attends to the special emphases of our program: scholarly significance, a thorough grounding in best practices in the cataloging profession, and the introduction of innovations that maximize efficiency and engagement with the scholarly community. Proposals that are not just focused on benefitting the home institution, but are collaborative in nature or that have the potential to affect cataloging practice and/or scholarship at the national level are especially prized. Weak proposals lack one or more of these characteristics, don’t attend sufficiently to details such as scheduling or budgets, or are not supported by strong letters of recommendation by qualified but disinterested experts in the project domain.
    • NHPRC: One of the most important things is to remember that reviewers may come from different settings or regions than the applicant. Assuming that reviewers will understand your organizational or legal setting can cause considerable confusion. For example, in some some states, county records are the responsibility of the state archives; in others they are not. Likewise, try to avoid assuming that all reviewers will be familiar with acronyms or specialized terms. We seek diverse reviewers to give us an array of points of view. Weak proposals skip over crucial details about the size and scope of collections, the work plan, and the commitment of the institution to the archival records.
    • NEH: This has been the subject of full workshops, so it’s difficult to capsulize an answer. For us, strong proposals are those that clearly communicate, foremost, the significance of the proposed collections, resources, and activities for humanities research, education, and/or lifelong learning. Each NEH grant program also emphasizes certain elements of project execution that must be well explained for expert as well as more general readers. Go light on jargon, and don’t simply say that you will follow prescribed best practices—explain how you are doing so. Write in an active voice, use “will” instead of “would,” and do not not dwell on need. The best applications are those that play to strengths and exude a sense of progress, rather than focusing on complications or crises.
  5. What do I do if I receive a grant then discover I need to make changes in my project plan?
    • NYSA: Contact the funding agency as soon as this discovery is made to discuss the change and the reason for it. At the State Archives, we will do what we can to accommodate the change, but if it is too dramatic a change, we will have to reject it.
    • CLIR: We try to work with our recipients as their circumstances change to find the best strategy for their project goals. However, we cannot approve changes that involve expenses that are outside our program’s scope. As an example, if an investigator finds s/he would like to allocate salary funds originally intended for one full-time position to two part-time positions instead, this would be likely to be approved, so long as the cost and amount of work to be accomplished remained the same. However, the reallocation of salary funds for equipment, software, or conference travel would not likely be acceptable, since such expenses are not the primary focus of our program.
    • NHPRC: Our administrative guidelines and related federal regulations allow a certain amount of reallocation of funds as long as it does not exceed 10% of the total project budget. There are additional details, so it is best to put the request in writing to your program officer and make sure it is acceptable before you commit yourself.
  6. What do you think your program staff could do better to serve the needs of applicants?
    • NYSA: We have been noted for the highly proactive way we work with grant applicants and grant recipients. Over the years, we have worked to provide better service through streamlining the process. This past year, the local government grants program converted to an e-grants system. We are hoping the Documentary Heritage Program will follow suit in about two years.
    • CLIR: We are a research organization rather than a funding agency, so we have been learning a lot over our program’s short history about how to better serve applicants. In the coming year, we hope to streamline our online system so that applicants can use it for both pre-proposals and final proposals. We will also enhance the information available on our website significantly, and we plan to offer applicant webinars after we issue our next request for proposals, should our program receive continued funding.
    • NHPRC: We continue to try to make our grant announcements as clear as possible without making them too long. We know that some applicants find the Grants.Gov process frustrating, but we put together a brief guide for people new to that process.
    • NEH: We know that we could build upon our outreach efforts and are taking steps along those lines, including use of social media. We also strive every year to bring greater clarity to our guidelines and provide more resources for applicants to consult. This is an ongoing process and one for which we appreciate the collegial relationship we have with sister grants agencies in sharing ideas. And, we very much welcome suggestions from the constituencies we serve!
  1. Where does the money for your program come from, and how much do the funding level and program requirements change from year to year?
    • NYSA: Funding for both grant programs at the archives comes from the Local Records Management Improvement Fund, which is based on filing fees paid for filing deeds, mortgages and other legal instruments at county clerk’s offices. The funding for the Local Government Records Management Improvement Fund grants that are given to local governments varies from year to year, depending on how many such instruments are filed each year. The Documentary Heritage Program has a set dollar amount annually.
    • CLIR: Our program was launched in 2008 with funds from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Because it is relatively new, the requirements have changed slightly from year to year as we refine our procedures, but the funding level and focus on cataloging hidden collections has remained the same and should remain the same for now: $4 million per year. The program has an intended five-year lifespan, which should provide for its continuation through 2012 should CLIR succeed in demonstrating the value of the program to the Foundation on an annual basis. After this time, we hope that the program can continue in some form, but this is entirely dependent on available funding and our ability to demonstrate its value.
    • NHPRC: Our funding level is first proposed by by the President, approved by Congress and then signed into law by the President. It has varied over recent years, but we hope to have around $10 million in grant funds for all of our programs.
    • NEH: Like NHPRC, our annual funding level is established through the federal government budgeting process. The current (FY 2010) allocation for NEH in its entirety is $167.5 million; the Division of Preservation and Access appropriation within that is approximately $17 million. In FY 2009, these amounts were $155 million and $16 million respectively.
  2. I’ve heard that most peer reviewers are biased against non-academic institutions, is this true?
    • CLIR: Our grants have gone to both academic and non-academic institutions roughly in proportion to the makeup of our applicant pool; so we haven’t really seen evidence of this sort of bias so far. However, because of their size, it can sometimes be challenging for non-academic institutions to bring together all of the varied expertise and insight necessary to write a strong proposal during our short application period. Our emphasis on engagement with scholarly experts in the process of “unhiding” hidden collections can also seem to put non-academic institutions at a disadvantage; however, scholars who are most interested in a collection tend to be located at a distance from that collection, anyway, whether it be at an academic or non-academic institution. So everyone in the library and archival community faces a challenge in attracting and sustaining the attention of those users in ways that benefit project work. Sometimes we’ve seen that the most creative thinking happens at the smaller, independent institutions who are most accustomed to reaching out to new users, members, and donors on a consistent basis.
    • NHPRC: Most of our reviewers of records projects are archivists, so they are more focused often on the techniques to be used in the project than the historical importance of the material. However, in the categories such as Archives: Detailed Processing or Digitizing Historical Records, in which the applicant must demonstrate the national significance of the collection it is important to show how a variety of users, including scholars, have used the collection to contribute to our understanding of the nation.
    • NEH: The program in our Division of Preservation & Access that provides the largest number of awards. Preservation Assistance Grants for Smaller Institutions, has supported an extremely diverse array of institutions—community museums and historical societies, local public libraries, state and local government entities, tribal heritage organizations, to name but a few. Academic institutions are also eligible and successful in this grant category, and, partly because they are leading focal points for the humanities, do play a larger role in some of our other grant categories. But our division is genuinely and demonstrably dedicated to serving cultural heritage institutions from many sectors of society.
  3. What kinds of institutions, collections, or projects are particularly attractive to reviewers for your program? Are there kinds of projects that don’t tend to perform well?
    • CLIR: The funder for our program, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and our review panelists, like that our grants go to a wide variety of types of institutions. They also like that collections of national significance from all fields of scholarship are represented among our award projects. However, our focus on “hidden” collections is sometimes a stumbling block: if a collection is already accessible to researchers in some way, even if not an ideal way, this makes a project less attractive to reviewers. Projects that require major investments in software development, technology, or salaries for staff who are already permanently employed at the applicant institution also don’t tend to perform as well.
    • NHPRC: We, and our reviewers, are interested in the wide range of archival repositories from those just starting out to those that are well-established and have more particular plans. It is important to demonstrate what the institution needs to do, how it will be sustainable after the grant is over, and how it will serve the American people.
  4. Do you review proposal drafts? If so, how have you seen this work to the advantage of applicants?
    • NEH: We generally accept application drafts up to six weeks before a grant deadline. We cannot accept drafts after this point. Drafts are not accepted for Preservation Assistance Grants for Smaller Institutions. Submitting a draft for program officer review can be extremely helpful in crafting a successful application.
    • NYSA: We are unable to review application drafts, due to requirements set down by our Office of State Comptroller.
    • CLIR: Our program officers do not have the capacity to review drafts. Instead, we accept pre-proposals, which are essentially full drafts of proposals to our program, minus supporting attachments. These are reviewed by our acting panel, and comments are returned to applicants roughly one month to six weeks prior to the final proposal deadline. Throughout the year, program officers exchange email with interested applicants. We particularly encourage applicants to write to us if they have questions about whether a project is well-suited to our program. Focusing on questions as they arise rather than on producing comments for drafts allows us to give equal attention to all applicants who seek our advice, as well as insures we keep as much objectivity as possible as we manage the review process. While other agencies regularly accept phone calls, we prefer to receive questions by email, since this allows us to share our communications with our staff and panelists, so that we’re sure the information we’re providing is as current and consistent as possible.
    • NHPRC: We do review drafts that we receive by the deadline stated in our grant announcement (generally two months before the submission deadline). Applicants are not required to submit a draft, but it is definitely helpful in developing a more focused proposal.
  5. We know what the guidelines say, but who really makes the decisions about your grants?
    • NEH: Our guidelines do, in fact, represent the process faithfully. See the next question and response for more on how this works.
    • NYSA: Our reviewers for both the local government and documentary heritage program grants are from outside the agency, with expertise in archives and records management. Our reviewers make recommendations that must be approved by the Commissioner of Education, but their recommendations generally are accepted.
    • CLIR: Our panel makes selections from each year’s pool and recommends these to the Trustees of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, who are responsible for final approval and award disbursement.
    • NHPRC: Peer reviewers are the first to comment on proposals. These comments are returned to the applicant along with questions from the NHPRC Program Officer. The applicant prepares a response to the comments and questions. The Program Officer prepares a summary of these materials addressing whether the applicant appears to have addressed significant concerns raised by the reviewers. Then the Commission reviews the proposal. Each proposal is voted on and a recommendation is made to the Archivist of the United States. The Archivist has the final authority to approve awards. In recent memory, the Archivist has agreed with most of the Commission’s recommendations.
  6. How does your review process work?
    • NEH: Peer reviewers with relevant expertise will read your application and advise the agency about its merits. Most often, this involves panel deliberations in Washington. NEH staff comments on matters of fact or on significant issues that otherwise would be missing from these reviews, then makes recommendations to the National Council on the Humanities. The National Council meets at various times during the year to advise the NEH chairman on grants. The chairman takes into account the advice provided by the review process and, by law, makes all funding decisions. Our peer reviewers include a mix of scholars and curators who can assess the humanities significance; methodology experts, such as conservators, archivists, librarians, and digital specialists; and administrators of cultural repositories.
    • NYSA: Grants are distributed to review panels made of three reviewers per panel. They are reviewed at home by three reviewers during a six week period. They submit evaluations and scores that are then shared with the other reviewers on their panel. The panels meet in Albany in person for a one-day review session, at which the final recommendations are made by the panel. Staff will review the decisions solely to ensure that there have been no major errors. The Commissioner of Education signs off on the recommendations.
    • CLIR: The calendar and procedures have been changing as the program evolves, but in general once continued funding for the program has been approved, we solicit pre-proposals in the winter and accept them in the spring. Each pre-proposal is reviewed and scored by at least two of our panelists. All applicants receive comments from reviewers, and applicants earning sufficient scores in the preliminary round are invited to submit final proposals in the summer. These are once again assessed individually by at least two reviewers, although not necessarily by the same reviewers assigned to a project in the pre-proposal round. The panel then comes together to review the entire pool and selects a slate of funded projects which they submit to The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for approval in the autumn.
    • NHPRC: Program Officers make up sets of proposals and finds panels of peer reviewers. Peer reviewers write up their comments and return their evaluations to the Program Officers who compile the overall results of the peer review.
  7. How often do you make site visits, and what are you looking for when you visit a site?
    • NYSA: For both programs, site visits to grant funded projects are carried out. The main goal is to provide advise and assistance to the applicant to ensure that the project is successfully completed. The visits are rarely seen as a “policing” effort.
    • CLIR: We try to visit each project site once, and more than once, if possible. We conduct our visits in tandem with an ongoing research project led by a team of consultants working with the program, so the site visits are opportunities to focus on particular aspects of a project that local staff may not have the opportunity to take the time to do in the daily course of work. These visits have been invaluable for teaching us about the needs and interests of our constituents, and in helping build stronger ties among staff working on our varied projects who share similar challenges. The consultants submit reports to CLIR as part of the study, which provide evidence for staff in their own reporting to The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. While CLIR staff are available to address problems and questions that may arise, we definitely view these days as opportunities to learn from rather than to “check up” on a project.
    • NHPRC: Our ability to make site visits has beeen limited by staff turnover, but we hope to visit several grantees a year. In general, site visits are not conducted because of problems, but just to ensure due diligence in the management of grants and learn more about the day-to-day operation of a project.
    • NEH: We do conduct site visits, often in conjunction with travel to conferences or other meetings in order to economize. We, too, approach these more in the context of information gathering and opportunities to see things first hand that we otherwise can only read in a grant application or progress report. These visits are only made with awardees; we do not conduct pre-submission visits with prospective applicants.

Compiled by Ray LaFever, New York State Archives Grants Administration Unit


  • Read the guidelines.
    • In order to follow the rules, you’ve got to read them. So read the guidelines before, and again several times throughout, the application process.
    • Make sure your organization is eligible for funding.
    • Pay attention to how the guidelines are laid out. You may not need to read everything–many programs have different components and fund different categories of projects. If you know what your project is, concentrate on the appropriate category. If you’re not sure, review all possibilities that seem appropriate. And if you are not sure where your project falls….
  • Ask for help.
    • Most granting agencies are more than happy to discuss your project by phone or email. Note the agency’s preferred mode of communication, and get in touch with them as early as possible, once you familiarize yourself with the guidelines.
    • Some agencies may be able to review your initial draft–others may not. Do take advantage of what services are offered to applicants.
    • Take advantage of any available websites, workshops, webinars, or other training in grant writing. Every shred of intelligence you can gather from the funding source or others familiar with that source will help you succeed.
    • If you have a grants office within your organization, take advantage of their help throughout the writing process.
  • Write carefully.
    • Explain why you need the grant. This is always essential but is often overlooked or poorly stated.
    • Show how your project can benefit others. Agencies like to fund projects that can make a broad impact.
    • Where it makes sense, find collaborators to strengthen your project. Make sure you are not duplicating the efforts of others.
    • Keep your project manageable by narrowing the focus to a series of tasks that can be completed well within the parameters of the timeframe allowed by the grant.
    • Write for the reviewers. As you write, think in terms of writing for a person or a panel of persons with expertise relevant to your project, yet not necessarily expertise in all of its aspects. While the makeup of review panels varies, most applications are reviewed by outside experts, not bureaucrats.
    • The right personnel really make or break any grant project. Hire the right person/s for the task. Sometimes contractual labor/consultants are better than hiring salaried staff. Know the difference and follow required laws.
  • Follow the rules.
    • Be sure to understand all the rules and follow them to the “T” when developing your proposal. Pay attention to what forms to use, font size and spacing requirements, word and page counts, where signatures belong, what sequence the proposal is supposed to be in.
    • Rules and requirements can be frustrating and even seem draconian, but the are important to protecting the fairness of the review process.
  • Once you are funded
    • Pay attention to deadlines and reporting requirements, putting all deliverables on a calendar that all project staff can access.
    • Stay in contact with representative from the funding source. Make them aware of your progress, so that they can congratulate you as you reach major milestones. Ask questions. If there are any concerns or delays, make them aware of these as soon as possible. Make the grants officers active partners in making your project a success.
    • Generate as much press and good will as you can from any award you receive. If you don’t pat yourself on the back, nobody else will! Some granting agencies even have model press releases you can use.
  • Spend the money!
    • You have worked hard to get it…now spend it.
    • Be completely honest in your reports, and spend the money as awarded.
    • Some programs will allow adjustments to your plan and budget, but they will have a procedure for making these changes. Be sure to follow these.


  • Don’t be too hasty.
    • Proofread–get others to check your spelling, grammar, and the logic of your arguments before you submit your proposal.
    • Don’t assume reviewers knows all there is to know about your organization, its mission, its strengths, or its collections. Take time to build the case that you and your project are a worthy investment.
    • Don’t assume your grants office knows the program guidelines by heart. They deal with so many different programs they can’t always remember the details. If they make changes to a proposal you have written, make sure these changes comply with the guidelines.
    • If you receive a grant, don’t make changes to your project plan or budget allocations without prior approval from your grants officer.
  • Don’t bite off more than you can chew.
    • Resist the temptation to plan to do too much with your project–it rarely curries favor. It’s great to be ambitious and have a long-term plan, but for the purposes of a limited term grant you must also be realistic.
  • Don’t make unreasonable demands.
    • Don’t ask a grants officer to read a draft if they don’t have the capacity to do this. Staffing levels, reviewing requirements, and job demands at each agency are different. If a service is offered to one applicant, it must be offered to all, and this simply may not be possible.
    • Don’t ask program officers to make exceptions to rules and requirements because you feel your organization or project is a special case. Agencies must treat everyone fairly and equally to preserve the integrity of their programs. By making such requests, you are asking the officers to put the reputation of their program at risk. However arbitrary a rule may seem, there is generally a sound reason for each one, which the officers can probably explain if asked.
  • Don’t be afraid to take risks.
    • Agencies want to fund projects that can set new standards and best practices.
  • Don’t be greedy.
    • Applying for the maximum amount allowed then trying to fit your project to this amount is a poor strategy–start with a problem and identify what’s needed to solve it.
    • Don’t pad the budget or let vendors who are quoting products and/or services for your grant proposal pad your budget. Justify clearly everything that is needed to accomplish the project and find what the actual best price of those goods and services are.
    • Don’t ask for more money than is permitted under the program, and don’t ask for indirect costs if a program doesn’t allow them.
    • Don’t supply more information than is requested in an application. First, by inserting extra words, pages, or documents, you may make your proposal ineligible. Secondly, you are creating the impression that you feel your proposal is deserving of more attention than other applicants’.
  • If you receive a grant, don’t procrastinate.
    • The grant cycle will be over before you know it. Time is your enemy, so start early and work hard toward every funded objective.
  • If your application doesn’t succeed, don’t take the outcome personally.
    • Most programs receive far more worthy proposals than they can fund. If you are able to regroup and re-apply in a future cycle, do so. Take any reviewer feedback you have received seriously, but take it for what it is: one or more individuals’ opinions on how you have presented your project at a particular moment–not a judgment of your, your institution’s, or your collections’ overall worthiness.
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