Planning Your Next DHAG 2: Activities, People, & Costs for Doing the Work
Updated in September 2021 for the 2022 application cycle
In this post, we discuss how to describe the activities, people, and costs involved in implementing your project through the Activities and Project Team section of the Narrative, as well as the Work plan, Biographies, Budget, and Budget Justification attachments 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, described in full in section E1 of the Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO):
Designing a feasible project
If the first three sections of the narrative are your chance to convince reviewers that your project matters, the Activities and Project Team section, as well as the Work Plan and Biographies attachments, are opportunities to convince reviewers that you can realistically accomplish your goals.
Use the Activities and Project Team section of the narrative to provide a high-level overview of how your project will be implemented. Readers should come away from this section with a clear understanding of what you’re going to do, who is going to be involved, and how you are going to measure the success of your project. Remember that this section should complement, not repeat, the information in other attachments. There’s no need to replicate details like the names and titles of your project team.
Use the Biographies attachment to demonstrate that the people involved are capable of completing this work.
Use the Work Plan attachment to provide clear and concrete information about what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it. Depending on the complexity of your project, you might use prose, a timeline, a Gantt chart, or a combination, to organize your work plan.
Articulating a work plan 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?
What risks, such as staff attrition, software development delays, or travel restrictions, do you foresee over the course of your project, and how will you mitigate them? What contingency plans will you put in place to respond to the coronavirus pandemic?
If you are launching a website, when will the launch be? How will you share (and celebrate!) the launch?
The review criteria for DHAG ask reviewers to consider the feasibility of your project in terms of timing, methodologies, technologies, team qualifications, risk, and accessibility.
Here is some advice based on reviewers’ comments about activities, project team, workplans, and biographies.
- Be clear and direct about your activities. “The work plan and outline of activities align well to the project goals” one reviewer wrote about a successful application. “The activities and workplan seem feasible given the skills and expertise of the team,” wrote another.
- Ensure that the project is not overly ambitious in its 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.
- Make sure your work plan provides concrete explanations of how activities will be executed. “Plans for testing, feedback, and dissemination seem vague,” one reviewer wrote. “What kinds of questions will the feedback help the team resolve?”
- Build a project team that has expertise in all areas of project implementation. Reviewers take note when there are no experts in the proposed methodology, digital preservation specialists, UX developers, or members of a target audience or affiliated community, such as teachers and school-age students, Indigenous communities, non-Anglophone users, users without access to broadband connections, and users with disabilities.
- Clearly articulate the roles and responsibilities of all named participants, including consultants and advisory board members.
Funding your project
The DHAG program offers three levels of funding that correspond to both the stage of the project and its budgetary needs. The three levels are described in detail on pages 1-2 of the Notice of Funding Opportunity.
Your budget form and budget justification serve two roles. When your project is funded, this form is the legal document that will determine how your funds are allocated and can be used.
When your project is reviewed, these documents are also assessed to determine whether your project is a good investment of NEH funds, and whether the funds are appropriate to the completion of the work.
This is why the budget justification is so important.
Here are some trends we’ve observed in recent grant budgets:
Project 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 are using grant funding to compensate the team appropriately. If compensation is coming from elsewhere, you can also indicate this in the Budget Justification. If a participant’s time won’t be 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.
Make sure to also describe how your project will provide training and mentorship to student workers in the Activities and Project Team section of the narrative.
Most instructors participating in workshops receive an honorarium, depending on the amount of work involved. Outside consultants, such as disciplinary experts and community participants, including those based outside of the United States, typically receive honoraria as well. Most projects compensate their advisory board members.
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.
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 typically reserved for projects involving scientific research, not humanistic inquiry.
As you are preparing your project budget, you will want to work closely with the person or team that will be responsible for submitting your application. At universities, these people are often based in an Office of Sponsored Research. Governing documents like 2CFR Part 200 and General Terms and Conditions can seem quite technical at times, but you may have colleagues at your institution with more expertise in these areas who are happy to help.
Reviewing the Budget and Justification
The review criteria for DHAGs ask reviewers to determine whether a budget is “reasonable.” To make this determination, reviewers consider the needs described in the workplan alongside the allocation of funds in the budget and justification. When reviewers feel comfortable with a budget, they tend to say that it is “reasonable,” “appropriate,” or on special occasions, “downright modest.”
Here is some advice based on reviewers’ comments about budgets.
- Make sure you are applying for the appropriate level of funding. You may be tempted to request the highest possible award. But if a project is in the exploratory stages and requests Level III funding, reviewers take note. These proposals are often considered too risky for the large funds they require.
- Ensure that the amount you are requesting is sufficient for the activities you are proposing. “My concern is that this budget undershoots what will actually be required,” one reviewer wrote.
- Be sure that the compensation provided by your project fully reflects the breadth of a collaborated initiative. When funds are directed only towards one or two individuals, reviewers will wonder whether the project’s success will depend on under-compensated collaborators.
- Provide sufficient compensation for all workers on your team. “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 institution restricts how you can compensate student workers, you can indicate this in the Budget Justification.
- Make sure that all project goals are sufficiently budgeted for. If you write about accessibility in your proposal, for example, reviewers will notice and appreciate when funds are dedicated toward accessible design in your budget.
- Finally, 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!
Want to learn more about other parts of your proposal?