Writing Arts and Humanities Proposals

Writing Arts and Humanities Proposals

This overview of the common sections required in grant proposals is meant as a reference. While not all of these sections will be required by any given grant program, these are the general sections typical to proposals in the Arts and Humanities. Many of these sections also appear in scientific and social science guidelines; however, proposals in those areas may require further information. In either case, proposal writers should carefully read the specific guidelines issued by the funding organization.

Abstract

A brief summary or the proposal. The abstract should include a statement of the subject of the proposal, a brief statement of the issue or problem to be addressed and why it is significant, a description of the approach/methods you will use to address the problem/issue, a statement of your hypothesis or argument and a statement of the potential ramifications of your work.
Warning: Do not confuse the abstract with an introduction. Abstracts are frequently separated from the proposal.
Hint: Start the abstract in this way: This proposal requests funding (amount) from [funder's name here] to support research into effects of music education on fifth graders.

Project Narrative

The bulk of the proposal in which you describe the project. The narrative may be split into sections. Common sections include the following:

Introduction

Many reviewers skip the abstract and go straight to the narrative. Introduce your subject in an interesting way. Do not assume that your reviewers have the same level of specific knowledge that you have. Guide the reader carefully, but respectfully, into the subject.

Problem/Issue Statement

To demonstrate that your project is important, show how it address a particular problem in your field. You might show how it addresses some gap in the scholarship, or advances some artistic trajectory in a new direction, or addresses a socio-cultural issue.
  • Hint: The "problem" does not need to have broad significance, but you must explain how/why it is important in your particular field. The "problem" may well exist in a single community – e.g. working out a technical artistic problem or addressing how/why a particular idea developed over time. For instance, understanding Shakespeare's treatment of the animal might have some ramifications for contemporary animal rights issues, but more importantly it sheds light on how the playwright understood, advanced, and resisted, constructions of the hierarchy of relationships among living things prominent during the period.
  • Remember, not everyone has to be working on a cure for cancer. Intellectual and artistic problems exist within specific contexts. Be sure to explain these contexts to your reader.
  • Hint: If you've set up the problem effectively, that is in a way that shows it really is a "problem" in a given context, the significance of the project almost writes itself.

Background

This section, which may precede the problem statement, generally includes a brief survey of the most important previous treatments of the problem. If you are addressing a gap in the scholarship, mention works that have led up to awareness of the gap. Mention your previous work if it directly relates to the identification of the gap or your preparation to address it.
  • Hint: Best not to take a negative approach to the literature survey, denouncing others for "missing" or ignoring your issue. Reviewers tend to find this tone off-putting and uncollegial.
  • Hint: For arts projects, the "background" is often about your artistic trajectory. Explain how you have come to identify with this particular "problem." Do discuss other artists or scholars who have influenced your thinking with respect to the problem.

Methods

Though it is tempting for humanists to say "I'm going to go read the materials and think about how they address my topic," or for artists to say "I'm going to go into the studio with my materials and create something," such statements are not particularly helpful to reviewers. Humanists should explain what materials they will be using and how they will obtain them. They should explain their interpretive assumptions and questions, citing any specific theoretical approaches that inform their work. (See hint below.) Artists should explain their creative process with respect to previous works and demonstrate a trajectory for how you have developed projects. Artists should also explain any technical processes they will be using.
  • Hint: Be as explicit as you can about how you will answer the question or address the problem.
  • Hint: When explaining theoretical paradigms and methodologies, avoid technical language. Gear your explanations for an interested undergraduate. When you must use a specialized term, be sure to briefly gloss it. Remember, all fields privilege specialized connotations for words that are not familiar across the academy. Don't assume your language is transparent and that reviewers will "figure it out." Help your reader to understand.
  • Hint: In the Social Sciences, the discussion of method is perhaps the most important section of the proposal. A poor methods section can deep-six a science proposal faster than anything. In the Arts and Humanities reviewers often have low expectations for the methods section. You can gain points quickly by demonstrating that you have thought critically about how you will be going about your interpretative work.

Plan of Work

The plan is just that, a description of what you will do, when you will do it, and, in some cases, where you will do it.
  • Hint: Make sure your plan of work aligns with your budget.

Timetable

Closely related to the plan of work, though a more precise estimate of the time to be spent in each phase of the project.

Goals—Outcomes

Often appearing early in the proposal, this section explain what you hope to accomplish with the work. Goals or outcomes will include addressing the stated problem in a way that contributes to your field. They will also include completing an artwork, article, book, film, etc.
  • Hint: Some organizations, including the NEH and NEA, and many foundations are highly outcome oriented. Be sure to read their guidelines for priority outcomes.
  • Hint: Artists and humanities scholars may not know, specifically, what the outcome will be. Thus, your problem section and your methods section carry a lot of weight. Set up a trajectory of past work and effective methods that point to a successful outcome.

Significance

This section should reiterate the problem/gap in scholarship and explain how your study will further work in the field.
  • Hint: Your work may have ramifications beyond your field – explain them.

Evaluation or Assessment

While a rarity in academic fellowship proposals, evaluation sections are becoming more popular in research proposals. Explain how your work will be reviewed – peer review for publication, scholarly review, or artistic review and public audiences. If you are proposing a public event, but sure to provide opportunities for feedback and mechanisms for learning from that feedback. 

Sustainability

This section is also increasingly used in event proposals. Here you must explain how the project will be continued once it has begun. Explain how much future funding will be needed and how you plan to raise it. Project the on-going levels of interest in the project and which pieces will most likely continue past the funding period.

Budget

A list of the estimated expenses you expect to accrue over the duration of the project. Many budgets also contain a list of committed fenders, and, in some cases, a list of pending funding requests. The budget is frequently accompanied by a budget narrative, which is a prose description of how each expense was determined.

Appendices

Additional material intended to augment the proposal. Appendices are sometimes required and may include such things as lists of performances, exhibitions, or composition. Lists of publications. List of key personnel involved in the project. Information on the University or your department or other unit. Appendices are not always allowed.

Curriculum Vitae or Resume

A list of your education, employment, scholarly or artistic accomplishments, and professional associations.

Writing for the Funding Audience

A grant or fellowship proposal is a document meant to persuade...
  • To convince someone that your project is important
  • That it addresses an issue or problem (which exists within a specific context)
  • That the problem/issue is important within that context
  • To convince someone that you are the right person to do the project
  • That you have the training and experience to do it
  • That you understand the situation/issue/contexts and have a unique perspective
  • That you have a means or method to effectively address the situation
  • So . . . . at the same time you are pitching the project you are pitching yourself.

Know and respect your audience

  • Know the Request for Proposals (RFP) guidelines
    • Follow them to the letter
  • Know the funder's criteria for proposal evaluation
    • Use the funder's language – tell them how your project fits
  • Check websites for information on the funder
  • Email or phone the program officer associated with the funding program
  • Talk with colleague who have experience with the funder

Consider your proposal from your audience's perspective

  • Emphasize those elements of your project that relate directly to the funder's concerns.
  • Pitch your language to funder's level of expertise. Be careful here. Don't assume everyone, even in your field, has read the same books that you have.
  • Demonstrate that your project is feasible and will be complete and that it has real potential for significant impacts.
  • Convey your interest and enthusiasm.
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