Friday, June 24, 2011

My Time at MARAC, Spring 2011 – Part 2, Improving Grant Writing Skills Workshop

As always, the Spring Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference held in Alexandria, Va. was more than worth the price of admission. My previous post hit the high notes of Rand Jimerson’s amazing plenary, and this entry will spotlight the incredibly useful Improving Grant Writing Skills pre-conference workshop.

MARAC’s organizers provided a great service for those of us who attended the workshop. They gave us access to leaders in the field, who actively engaged us in discussions and exercises designed to increase our grant-winning success. Our speakers were Lucy Barber, Deputy Executive Director of the National Historic Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC); Elizabeth Joffrion, Senior Program Officer, Division of Preservation and Access at the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH); and Christa Williford, Program Officer at the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR). In these days of economic challenges, when many cultural heritage institutions are depending on grants to support their work, I cannot overstate the importance of this workshop and the ability to meet and learn from these three key women.

Prior to the workshop, we were sent three sample grant proposals, one from each organization represented by the speakers. They were not full proposals, but enough material to gain an understanding of what would make a successful submission. At the end of each proposal was a list of criteria for review. I was pretty critical in my review of each proposal so that I would have questions for the workshop. It was interesting to see what was required by each organization, and how detailed (or, in some cases, brief) the proposals were.

The handouts we received at the workshop were particularly helpful. We were handed a sheet providing an overview of what each organization does and does not fund. Further, we received a booklet that goes into much greater detail regarding the organizations’ exact grant programs, awards granted in 2010, and grant evaluation materials, among other handy facts.

During the workshop, each speaker described her role in the organization and how she helps grant applicants. Projects that tend to succeed as well as excellent tips were shared during their introductions. The speakers also talked at length about the importance of applications that lay the groundwork for best practices in the field (especially in the areas of digitizing collections (NEH); more product, less process (NHPRC), and cost control (CLIR).

I was very impressed by how invested they were in the applicant’s success. Christa Williford (CLIR) explained that her organization requires a pre-proposal as well as a final proposal in order to give applicants a chance to make corrections during the process.

After a break, we split into three groups. Each focused on one of the organizations, and was facilitated a speaker. Because I was particularly interested in the “Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives” program at CLIR, I chose that group. We reviewed the sample proposal and looked at the scholarly value of the collection, viability of the project plan, and technical approaches. Then we determined whether we would recommend the project and why, as well as suggested improvements.

It was a useful exercise because we were able to speak with and ask questions of our speakers in a small group. Afterward, each group shared their lessons learned, and the speakers gave us even more great tips. These are my favorites:

1. Make the project compelling – entice the reviewers to visit the collection and help them visualize the outcome.
2. Be explicit in explanations – spell out the innovation(s) in the plan; how is it a model for other organizations?
3. Work out as much detail as possible in addressing all the points, but be succinct.
4. Remember that you are writing for other archivists and curators in the field.
5. Collaboration is a winning strategy (work with other organizations to achieve the goal together).
6. Cost-sharing proposals tend to receive funding.

Finally, our speakers encouraged us to contact them during our grant writing process. They welcomed questions and made themselves available after the workshop for one-on-one conversations. Overall, I left the workshop feeling much more comfortable with the task of writing a grant application, and feeling much more likely to succeed.

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