How to Get a Grant from NEH

By Hindley, Meredith | Humanities, July/August 2008 | Go to article overview

How to Get a Grant from NEH

Hindley, Meredith, Humanities


In 2007, NEH received 4,498 applications for projects ranging from documentary filmmaking to the preservation of artifacts to institutes for schoolteachers to scholarly research. Most of these applications were turned down. Is it so hard to get a grant from NEH? In a word, yes. We can fund only a small portion of the applications we receive, and the competition is stiff.

Given the odds, some applicants have wondered if there is a secret to getting a grant. A magic formula or maybe a special handshake? Well, actually, no. Successful applicants, however, do tend to hit certain marks. And a number of unsuccessful applicants, though not all, tend to miss those same marks.

So, for the sake of new and returning applicants, we've been talking to program officers and division heads, collecting positive and negative lessons, along with a few of the more telling details about how NEH's review process works. This article, of course, is not intended to supplant any instructions found in NEH's application guidelines, but rather to supplement them. We have tried here to give prospective applicants the kind of information they might learn from a short but informative conversation with an NEH officer.

Got humanities?

Does my project have a strong humanities component? That's the first question you should ask yourself if you're thinking about applying for an NEH grant. We hate to belabor the obvious, but if a major portion of your project is not devoted to some area or topic in the humanities, it won't be funded.

So what are the humanities? NEH's founding legislation offers an expansive definition: "The term 'humanities' includes, but is not limited to, the study of the following: language, both modern and classical; linguistics; literature; history; jurisprudence; philosophy; archaeology; comparative religion; ethics; the history, criticism and theory of the arts; those aspects of social sciences which have humanistic content and employ humanistic methods; and the study and application of the humanities to the human environment with particular attention to reflecting our diverse heritage, traditions, and history and to the relevance of the humanities to the current conditions of national life."

We sometimes get applications seeking support for projects that aspire to "benefit humanity," such as yoga studios, community centers, and UFO investigations (yes, really). That's not us. NEH is interested in helping people study, tell, interpret, analyze, and document the course of human history and culture-ancient, modern, and in-between.

Read the guidelines!

Application guidelines for all NEH grant programs are available on the agency's website ( They contain everything you need to know about applying for a grant. Each set of guidelines begins with a program description that explains the purpose and goals of the grant program and lists what types of activities it supports. This section lets you know if your project is a good fit for a particular program. If you're uncertain whether your project fits, please contact an NEH program officer.

You should also carefully read the eligibility section, making sure that you or your organization are eligible to receive that particular grant. The last thing you want to do is spend time and energy preparing an application only to be declared ineligible. (For what it's worth, NEH staffers hate declaring applications ineligible.)

The meat of your application is the narrative and supporting documents. In writing your narrative, you need to clearly outline your project. {Psst if there's a secret to getting a grant, this is it.) What do you want funding to do? Don't make the reviewers guess.

You should make the project's contribution to the humanities explicit. The importance of your subject is not self-evident. There may be ten projects about your topic during a particular grant cycle. Why is yours better than the others? …

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