Crisis and Opportunity
New AHA–NEH Grants for Small History Organizations
The past 18 months have been challenging for small history organizations. They have faced disruptions to normal activities, whether gatherings, services, or educational programming; financial difficulties at institutions of higher education and nonprofits have led to layoffs and a decline in support for professional development and other discretionary expenditures; and many organizations (large and small) have begun to engage the long-overdue reckoning with the implications of a past shaped by systemic racism. Adaptation, however, has generated exciting new ideas and innovative new ways of thinking about what we do and how we do it. These crises have also created opportunities to rethink programming, expand audiences, and experiment with ways to extend the work of history organizations in different directions.
A recently awarded grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) American Rescue Plan: Humanities Grantmaking program will enable the AHA to provide $2.5 million in support of dozens of small history-related organizations adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. As we look toward a postpandemic future, these grants, ranging from $10,000 to $75,000, will fund short-term projects that explore new ideas or build on experiments initiated during the pandemic—from virtual programming or online publications to using new technologies or expanding audiences and accessibility.
We have structured our program to encourage proposals for ambitious new initiatives as well as smaller projects that address particular problems that have arisen as a result of the pandemic. To qualify for these grants, an organization’s maximum annual budget cannot exceed $750,000. We will divide eligible organizations into three broad categories for proposals and evaluations: membership associations, site- or location-based institutions, and history and humanities departments at historically Black and tribally controlled colleges and universities (HBCUs and TCCUs).
Many of these entities face comparable challenges as they move toward new ways of thinking about both their missions and their core activities. Most have transitioned from in-person to online or hybrid (itself a term that has spawned as much ambiguity as innovation) events and instruction. They are working to appeal to more diverse constituencies. HBCU and TCCU departments, like their counterparts elsewhere in higher education, are competing for institutional resources and seeking to build enrollments. All these small organizations are making the case for their status as an “essential” resource, whether to new public audiences, students, parents, or university administrations.
A recently awarded NEH grant will enable the AHA to support dozens of small history-related organizations.
Associations of humanities scholars have been especially affected by cutbacks in members’ funds for professional development and research activities. In addition to significant membership declines, many of these associations have lost thousands of dollars in revenue because of canceled conferences, forfeited hotel deposits, and cancelation penalties. In-person conferences will continue to be imperiled by scholars’ declining institutional travel budgets, whether in higher education or other settings, along with lingering travel hesitancy even as COVID-19 dangers slowly diminish. Pandemic conditions have led to experimentation with online meetings, but the long-term sustainability of these models remains unclear. Organizations are learning what they can do and will need resources to continue these experiments. But they also will need to nourish debate about what they should do, in terms of mission, ethical and intellectual imperatives, and institutional sustainability. The AHA hopes these grant resources can help generate new ideas about what is possible and facilitate debate over what is desirable as organizations experiment and find ways to maintain the best aspects of their current programming.
A second category of eligible institutions will be site- and location-based organizations, including history museums, historic houses, archives, historical societies, and history-focused nonprofits. The pandemic has disrupted revenue-producing activities, drastically reduced their visitorship, and in some cases forced a suspension of operations. At the same time, many of these institutions have begun to reconsider their responsibilities to diverse communities and question whether interpretive frameworks are consistent with current scholarship. The AHA’s grant program offers funding to support an increase in the accessibility of online resources, broaden constituencies, plan for the sustainability of operations, and imagine the future.
History and humanities departments at HBCUs and TCCUs are the third category of eligible applicants. Many of these chronically underresourced institutions responded to the pandemic by focusing on job-oriented disciplines, such as pharmacy and engineering. This has led some HBCU history departments to request AHA support in internal struggles for resources. Recent surveys and focus groups organized by the AHA and the American Philosophical Association emphasized the need for funding streams at HBCUs. We look forward to proposals shaped by the priorities and interests of history faculty thinking about new departmental initiatives, collaborations with other disciplines, or partnerships with off-campus entities.
In addition to supplying funds, the AHA hopes to cultivate community and mutual consultation among grantees.
Having already called on their reserve funds during the pandemic, many associations, site-based organizations, and HBCU and TCCU history departments lack adequate resources to plan for future operations in a changed landscape. These grants will enable them to research and assess that shifting terrain, as well as implement initiatives that will sustain their work, increase accessibility, and instigate change.
In the wake of last summer’s protests against racial injustice, history organizations are facing a long-overdue racial reckoning, requiring them to understand their pasts and to rethink who they are, who they serve, and how to reach and support broader constituencies. The AHA’s grant program encourages collaboration between HBCUs and TCCUs and history organizations that are either geographically proximate or capable of digital initiatives. Partner institutions, such as historic houses, museums, and associations, would benefit from HBCU and TCCU faculty and student engagement in reimagining how their institutions might broaden and connect with local constituencies. Rather than fund organizations to encourage their collaboration with HBCUs and TCCUs, our program will enable HBCUs and TCCUs to shape the priorities of such collaborations with their own proposals.
In addition to supplying funds, the AHA hopes to cultivate community and mutual consultation among grantees. As part of this program, representatives from participating organizations will gather online to learn from one another and generate collaborations that will, hopefully, extend beyond the grant period. The AHA will host two virtual workshop series as part of its mission to provide opportunities for professional and organizational development and networking. The first workshop series will bring together similar organizations. The second will include all grantees pursuing similar projects with different approaches. Our goal is to encourage long-term connections that identify and respond to the new needs of entities that are essential to the work of historians but are perhaps too small to take risks or lack the resources to implement the creativity of their staff and volunteers.
The AHA is grateful to the NEH for enabling us to mobilize public resources for the promotion of historical work, historical thinking, and the presence of history in public life. Visit historians.org/sharp-grants for more information about eligibility and how to apply. Proposals will be accepted through December 14, 2021, for projects beginning as early as April 1, 2022. Recipients will be announced by March 1, 2022. The AHA will host applicant-support webinars and will be available during the application period to assist with questions regarding the application.
James Grossman is executive director of the AHA; he tweets @JimGrossmanAHA. Dana Schaffer is deputy director of the AHA.
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