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Planning Your Digital Humanities Advancement Grant 2: Activities, People, & Costs for Doing the Work

November 4, 2019

This the second of three posts (post 1 | post 3) meant to help applicants start planning and writing a Digital Humanities Advancement Grant proposal.  In this post, we discuss how to describe the activities, people and costs involved in implementing your project through the work plan, budget, budget justification, and biographies sections of the grant application.

We also demonstrate how these sections of your application fit with our review criteria so you can understand how the decisions you make—and the way you write about them—will be evaluated by your peers during the review process. This post will address review criteria 3-5:

  • The feasibility of the work plan, proposed methodology, and use of technology, and the project’s plans for mitigating risk and addressing accessibility for its intended audiences
  • The qualifications, expertise, and levels of commitment of the project director and key project staff or contributors
  • The reasonableness of the proposed budget in relation to the proposed activities, the anticipated results, products, and dissemination

Designing a feasible project

If the first three sections of the narrative are your chance to convince reviewers that your project matters, the work plan and biographies sections are opportunities to convince reviewers that you can realistically accomplish your goals.

Use these sections to provide clear and concrete information about what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it. That requires breaking down the big idea into small and manageable pieces, such as:

  • If you are collecting data or building a corpus, how long will it take? What tasks, tools, data structures, and repositories are involved? Who will do the work?
  • If you are holding events or meetings, when and where will they be held? Who will organize the event? Who will attend?
  • If you are contracting with outside developers, how long will their work take? What are they committed to doing?
  • If you will be hiring students or term-limited workers, how will your project provide them with mentorship and professional development?
  • When and how will you assess your project over the course of the grant period?
  • If you are launching a website, when will the launch be? How will you share (and celebrate!) the launch?

Reviewing the Work Plan and Project Team Qualifications

The review criteria for DHAG ask reviewers to consider the feasibility of the work plan, methodology, and technology.

One of the most common concerns among reviewers has to do with scope. “I am concerned that there is a lot to be done in a short amount of time,” one reviewer wrote succinctly. This is a particular challenge in Level I and Level II grants, which tend to be highly ambitious, but short on time.

Another common critique has to do with vagueness or ambiguity about what is being done, and how, and by whom.  “Plans for testing, feedback, and dissemination seem vague,” one reviewer wrote. “What kinds of questions will the feedback help the team resolve?”

Reviewers will evaluate if they think the right team is in place to complete the proposed activities. In one case, a reviewer wrote, “There are no specialists on the team to help determine the suitability of [this methodology].” In another, reviewers expressed concern that no named participants were based in humanities departments. Elsewhere, reviewers wondered why there were no digital preservation specialists or UX developers involved.

As described in more detail below, reviewers also look for evidence that staff compensation is appropriate to the labor required by the project.

Similarly, reviewers look for roles and responsibilities for named consultants and advisory board members.

The makeup of the project team can be particularly important when it comes to outreach and accessibility, as reviewers seek to determine whether the project team is familiar with the needs and interests of outside audiences and affiliated communities, such as teachers and school-age students, Indigenous communities, non-Anglophone users, users without access to broadband connections, and users with disabilities.

Funding your project

The DHAG program offers three levels of funding that correspond to both the budget cap as well as type of activities. Project Directors should determine the appropriate level by balancing out project costs with the stage of development.

  • Level I: $10,000- $50,000, for small projects that are experimental or that involve research, convenings, or planning sessions.
  • Level II: $50,001 to $100,000 are for projects that have completed a planning or exploratory phase and will develop working prototypes or code, sample data sets or models, methodological workflows, and/or documentation by the end of the grant period.
  • Level III: $100,001 to $325,000 (an additional $50,000 per project in matching funds may be available for Level III applicants) are for scaling up and expanding established projects that have a demonstrated track record of success and strong user community or demand for the project’s outputs.

To explain your project costs, use the budget justification, which is now required for all grant proposals.

Budget Trends

Here are some trends we’ve observed in recent grant budgets:

Principal Director salaries: Some PDs use funds to pay for a course release or a percentage of their salary; others donate their time to the project. You can use the budget justification to explain how much time you intend to dedicate to the project and why, especially if it doesn’t correspond directly with the budget.

Project Team members: Alongside Project Directors, personnel named in a project budget may include student assistants, librarians, archivists, UI/UX designers, developers, postdoctoral fellows, and anyone else receiving compensation from this award. Use the budget and justification to demonstrate that you have a robust and diverse team, and that you are using grant funding to compensate the team appropriately. If time isn’t compensated financially, you can provide evidence of commitment in the Budget Justification or with a letter from a partnering institution, such as your university’s library, indicating support.  

Student and staff wages: Student wages may be hourly, salaried, or summer pay, and may or may not include benefits or tuition. You can use the budget justification to explain your institutional policies around student pay and how wages were determined, including explanations of fringe benefits.

Honoraria: Most instructors participating in workshops receive an honorarium, depending on the amount of work involved. Outside consultants, such as area experts and community participants, typically receive honoraria as well. Most projects offer honoraria to their advisory board.

Subrecipients/contractors: Increasingly, ODH projects are depending on outside organizations for user interface design or other technical development work. Use the work plan to demonstrate close consultation with the subrecipient or contractor over the project’s development. In the budget justification or appendix, detail the scope of work and costs required to complete the identified activities.

Indirect Costs: The appropriate indirect cost rate and what activities it applies to are generally determined by your institution in negotiation with a federal agency. Be aware that institutions usually negotiate multiple rates, and that, with rare exceptions, your institution’s “Research” rate will not be the appropriate rate to apply to your NEH project budget. The use of this rate is reserved for projects involving scientific research, not scholarly inquiry of the type most often supported by NEH.

As you are preparing your project budget, you will want to work closely with the person or office team that will be responsible for submitting your application on behalf of the institution to the NEH via Grants.gov.  Your institutional grants administrator can help you understand specific institutional policies and will probably have a greater understanding of the 2 CFR Part 200 Uniform Administrative Requirements, Cost Principles, and Audit Requirements for Federal Awards, and the General Terms and Conditions for Awards to Organizations (for grants and cooperative agreements issued December 26, 2014 or later).—two (very long-titled) documents that cover NEH awards.  Yes, it can seem quite technical at times, but you may have colleagues at your institution with more expertise in these areas and are happy to help.

Reviewing the Budget and Final Products and Dissemination

The review criteria for DHAG ask reviewers to determine whether a budget is “reasonable.” Reasonableness relates to the amount requested for the activities proposed in the workplan and the personnel and other costs allocated to achieve the goals. When reviewers feel comfortable with a budget, they tend to say that it is “reasonable,” “appropriate,” or on special occasions, “downright modest.”

Reviewers particularly appreciate attention to aspects of the project that tend to be left out of budgets as this shows a clear commitment to making sure that activity will happen. “Ensuring ADA compliance as a budget line is a good call,” wrote one reviewer.

One of the first things that reviewers look at is whether a project is asking for the appropriate level of funding. If a project is in the exploratory stages and requests Level III funding, reviewers take note. These proposals are often considered risky for the large funds they require.

Concerns arise when budget items seem unusually high or low. Those with technical experience sometimes wonder whether funds are sufficient for the amount of work required. “My concern is that this budget undershoots what will actually be required,” one reviewer wrote.

Personnel is also an item of concern for reviewers, who look for evidence that compensation is reflective of the full breadth of a collaborative project. Some worry about funds being directed disproportionately towards one or two individuals.

In other cases, reviewers worry that labor is not being sufficiently compensated. “Budget and work plan do not indicate how student programmer labor will be compensated,” one reviewer remarked, reflecting growing concerns about compensating student labor in the digital humanities.

If your budget is working within hidden constraints or if your project has other sources of funding, try to mention this in the budget justification. And make sure to check your math: reviewers will notice if your numbers don’t add up!