A few weeks ago, I attended one of six in-person regional workshops offered by IMLS for potential grantees to learn about the grant programs for museums. This year the applications for all six grant programs are due on the same day, November 15. As an evaluation firm, RK&A does not apply for grants, but we typically support several museums a year with their proposal-writing efforts. We help them articulate their outcomes, align their project activities with those outcomes, and prepare the evaluation plan accordingly. Though we have considerable experience with IMLS grants, I know learning and improving is a never-ending quest, so I decided to attend the workshop in the spirit of learning how I, as an evaluator, can best support museums in their grant pursuit. I left the workshop with more than tips for writing a proposal. I left with a deeper knowledge of IMLS, their goals and intentions, and a desire to share that knowledge.
One of the first things I learned at the workshop, which took me somewhat by surprise, was the reason IMLS decided to host these in-person workshops: most of the grant applications come from a small portion of the states. I commend IMLS for recognizing and addressing this problem by hosting the workshops, and for hosting the workshops in states with a low number of grant applications, including New Jersey, Alabama, Indiana, South Dakota, New Hampshire, and Utah. I had noticed over the years that many of the same museums seem to win IMLS awards again and again, which makes sense because over time these museums had learned what makes a winning proposal. But it had not occurred to me that thousands of other museums may be missing the opportunity simply because they don’t apply. Why is this?
IMLS suspects that some museums think they are too small to win a grant, and to their credit, IMLS opened a new grant category called Inspire! for small museums (no cost share required). IMLS also suspects that some museums feel these grants are for certain kinds of museums with ample resources to develop the grant applications. But that isn’t true. While preparing a winning IMLS award requires time, we have found the application process to be valuable in and of itself because it pushes museums to think clearly about what difference they want to make in their audience’s lives and how to go about affecting that change. We believe that thinking process is an attainable and worthwhile endeavor for museums regardless of size, location, and financial resources. The workshop gave many tips for writing a good IMLS proposal, but it also gave me a desire to spread the word to museums in those underrepresented states to apply for an IMLS grant! While winning an IMLS award requires hard work and clear thinking about what you want to do, your museum will learn a lot from the process—a value that is priceless and not dependent on winning the grant award.