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#FunderFriday: What You Need to Know to Get Funded by NEH

By Lisa Hasko

As I was putting together this quarter’s grants and opportunities blog post, I was made aware of an outstanding response posted in one of our favorite online communities, The D-Word. Lucky for us, the writer agreed to share her knowledge with the IDA community. We are pleased to feature the thoughtful insight of director/producer Tracy Heather Strain, as she shares her key takeaways about the NEH grant application process. She has applied and received two grants each from the NEA and NEH (!), with rejections from both as well, and served as a panelist for the organization three times since 2004.

While she modestly claims not to be an expert, we think she’s got some of the best intel on one of the most beastly documentary grant applications out there. Here are some of the things she thinks every filmmaker should keep in mind.


It takes a long time to read all the books and articles on your topic and talk to people and complete pre-interviews - and just to think. Regarding advisers, figure out who you want and need. The selection of your advisers should be a strategic decision. You need specialists in the content as well as generalists. You should have a diverse team of scholars, and I'm not just talking about race and gender. I've never done all of the work by myself for these proposals, but even so, it took several months, full-time to get a draft of our development grant completed and sent to the advisers and the NEH program officer for feedback before submitting. The production grant took more time because a comprehensive script/story treatment is needed.


I feel that the key to NEH proposals is to think like an academic and a filmmaker. This is a "nerdy" proposal for lack of a better term. It is all about the humanities; everything must work together to bring significant humanities themes to the public. A humanities theme is not just a topic, but a line of academic inquiry that may be written about and debated like "the long-view of the civil rights activism." Be prepared to know your subject as well as anyone who is about to write a Ph.D. dissertation (especially if you are not a well-known production entity. Remember you are competing with people with staff like Ken Burns, WGBH, WNET, WETA, etc.). At the development stage, of course you will not be there yet, but for production funds, you should be there. Anticipate areas of concern and address them: "During the development phase we will further explore [area of concern, missing info, etc.]."


After you call in to speak to a program officer, which is highly recommended, really listen and apply the advice that is offered. Your program officer can be an advocate of sorts within the internal system. Also, they know how the internal system works and the people therein. So, if the program officer recommends someone as an adviser, check that person out, and have a really good reason if you don't add that person to your project. You should know why famous so-and-so's line of analysis is not a part of your project, and include why that is in a diplomatic way in your narrative.


If you want loyal advisers, you must impress on them that you know your stuff and want to learn more from them. Don't think of them as a necessary annoyance. If they see you taking the material seriously, they will provide you with helpful feedback and information to build a strong proposal and remain loyal throughout the process no matter how long it takes. Also, you must incorporate them into the schedule you create and pay them; it is an expectation of the NEH. Remember, it's all about the humanities.


Make sure your story synopsis is written in active voice and is compelling. Think about someone sitting there with 20 proposals to read. Actually, make your entire proposal a joy to read versus something for a panelist to force herself to get through because she has to write stuff about it. Headings and subheads are good. Make sure your story actually connects with the humanities themes you plan to present.


There is nothing positive about submitting a budget in which you don't include your compensation in the document. It looks unprofessional to the NEH; they want you to get paid so that you can focus on the challenging work you decided to undertake. Make sure everything that you include in the WORK PLAN section is covered in the budget. In your production budget don't forget about the various insurances (commercial liability, production, workers comp and E&O) and line items for deliverables.


Do not wait until the last minute to figure out how to submit your proposal. This submission is not at all like other proposals. There is a lot of preparation involved in submitting a proposal via the government's online system, and if you are an individual applicant, you’ll need to have a fiscal sponsor in place. You and your fiscal sponsor need DUNS numbers; you have to create an account for the project; there are required forms to complete; you must know how to make PDFs and connect materials via PDFs (so you may need extra software); and there's more. The night of the due date the system gets clogged and glitchy, so try not wait until the last minute because there is no appeal.


The big names and all the rest get rejected by the NEH. Take it personally for a day, then really read the feedback and think about how you will make the next proposal better if you decide it is worth your time and energy. Your program officer will give you verbal feedback should you want it. You may be able to infer from the conversation that your proposal was great and that there was a strong panelist who steered the rest to lower their initial scores. It could be that there was another proposal submitted on the same topic and the project was further along and better. Perhaps the NEH is not interested in your topic at that time. You just don't know. Like all grant rejections it's heartbreaking, but because of all of the months of work, it can feel devastating.


Yippee! If you are awarded a development grant, you get the money and can get going doing what you said you were going to do with the money. You cannot deviate without justifying. If awarded a production grant, you have quarterly reports to submit as well as a major report to complete at the end of the grant period. Remember there are a lot of things that cannot be put on a budget of a project funded by the government like alcoholic beverages. Itemize your receipts! If you are awarded a production grant, you don't get the award until you raise the entire amount of your total budget.


Visit the NEH site to read a sample narrative section of a successful NEH application by the IDA fiscally sponsored project, 1913 Seeds of Conflict, by director Ben Loeterman.


The full post originally appeared on The D-Word, an online community of documentary professionals. To become a member, visit