Monday, July 25, 2011

Analyzing the NEA 'Our Town' Grants (Part 2)

When I published my post "Analyzing the NEA 'Our Town' Grants," several people wanted to know about whether the awards reflected the applicant pool, and I said I didn't know. Last week, I was contacted by Jamie Bennett, the Chief of Staff and Director of Public Affairs for the NEA, who provided me with the data. (Ian, have at it!)

Let's go inside the numbers a bit using my particular lens. The NEA provides us with breakdowns according to county population and city population. The reason I focus on county population is that there are many places that officially have small populations, but are really bedroom communities for a much larger nearby metropolis. From my perspective, these are not small or rural communities, but extensions of the larger population center, and the arts options available to them are mostly to be found in the city. My focus is on small and rural communities that are in counties that are also small or rural. Nevertheless, let's examine both sets of numbers.

The data focused on the proposals that made the final cut, of which there were 103, 51 of which received grants, or about 49.5%. Here is a list of the county populations, how many proposals were submitted, how many awarded, and what percentage that represents:


  • Under 100,000: Submitted 15, awarded 6 (40%)
  • 100,000 to 500,000: Submitted 33, awarded 17 (51.5%)
  • 500,000 - 2,500,000: Submitted 48, awarded 23 (47.9%)
  • >2,500,000: Submitted 7, awarded 5 (71.4%)

  • Under 100,000: Submitted 48, awarded 19 (39.5%)
  • 100,000 - 500,000: Submitted 35, awarded 18 (51.4%)
  • 500,000 - 2,500,000: Submitted 17, awarded 11 (64.7%)
  • >2,500,000: Submitted 3, awarded 3 (100%) [interesting note: 100% proposals over 1M pop received awards)
Analysis: Whether examined according to cities or counties, the data suggest that if you were in an area with a large population you were more likely to be awarded an Our Town grant. There is a considerably higher success rate for the largest counties (71.4%) and cities (100%). Does this indicate a bias on the part of the peer review panel? Judging just from this data, I think there is enough evidence to lean yes. Is it conscious? Hard to say.

The other analysis I did in my original post looked at those states that didn't receive an Our Town grant at all. Did they submit a proposal?

AL: Submitted 0, awarded 0
DE: Submitted 0, awarded 0
DC: Submitted 1, awarded 0
GA: Submitted 2, awarded 0
IN: Submitted 1, awarded 0
KS: Submitted 1, awarded 0
KY: Submitted 1, awarded 0
MT: Submitted 1, awarded 0
NH: : Submitted 1, awarded 0
NJ: : Submitted 1, awarded 0
NM: Submitted 0, awarded 0
NV: Submitted 0, awarded 0
OK: Submitted 0, awarded 0
OR: : Submitted 2, awarded 0
SD: Submitted 0, awarded 0
UT: Submitted 0, awarded 0
VA: Submitted 0, awarded 0

Analysis: Of the 17 states (including DC) who received no Our Town funding, 8 (47%) did not submit a proposal, and of those who did, 7 submitted only 1 proposal. .

You will see on page 1 of the document the organizations that the NEA contacted in an attempt to increase the number of applicants from small and rural communities. It is an extensive list that indicates a legitimate attempt was made to increase the number of submissions, and I enthusiastically applaud their efforts and concern, and wonder aloud whether their efforts were matched by representatives of those organizations. As Mr. Bennett notes, "We made a concerted effort to reach out to communities of every size, working with the organizations on the attached list -- including yours -- asking them to forward information about the Our Town grant opportunity. We would truly welcome your - and your readers' - ideas about other networks to activate and other ways to do outreach." And I urge readers to contribute their ideas in the comments.

Nevertheless, given what percentage of proposals from small and rural counties were tossed out in the final round by the peer reviewers (and it might be interesting to know how many of those reviewers were themselves from small or rural counties), one might fairly wonder whether the interest in non-metropolitan communities was shared by the panel. The fact that 100% of the proposals that came from cities with populations over a million suggests otherwise.

That the NEA is concerned about this is reflected in another sentence from Mr. Bennett's email to me: "This analysis leads me to believe that if we want to change how the NEA grantee pool looks, we need to change the applicant pool." I will be having a conversation with him to discuss my ideas later in the week, so if you have any ideas for accomplishing this, I'd love to hear it.

Finally, I was told about another conversation of this issue, in which someone wondered why we should be surprised about this tendency to slight small and rural areas -- after all, the NEA doesn't have addressing this issue as part of their mandate. For this person, and for those who think that this issue is somehow irrelevant, I would quote the 1965 act of Congress that mandated that the NEA dedicate itself "to supporting excellence in the arts, both new and established; bringing the arts to all Americans; and providing leadership in arts education."


Ian David Moss said...

No real complaints here. The one thing that I would mention is that there are many factors that go into evaluation of a grant proposal other than geography, and it could well be that rather than conscious or unconscious bias on the part of panelists driving these differences, there was a real difference in the quality level that the bigger communities were able to bring to their proposals. Obviously I don't know that this was the case, it's just an alternative hypothesis. Note that I'm not really talking about the quality of the idea here, but more the track record of the individuals involved, the local resources available for effective execution, etc. Since resources of all kinds (human, financial, etc.) cluster in cities, it's not implausible that it would be harder for rural communities to compete. To me, this is suggested by the fact that the two very smallest counties were both funded, but the next category up went 0 for 4. It's like the panel did make an effort to consider urban/rural diversity at the extremes, but perhaps didn't think about it for the rest of the portfolio.

Scott Walters said...

Hey, Ian. I would agree with you completely. I suspect that the panels were told to focus entirely on "excellence." I am hoping to do some writing on that topic in the near future.

Jamie Bennett said...

Scott, many thanks for your follow up and continued attention. One slight correction I would like to make to your county analysis. I believe you forgot to count two grants to counties under 100,000 population, and the correct numbers are:

Under 100,00: submitted 15; awarded *6* (*40*%)

Looking forward to our conversation this week.

Anita Lauricella said...

I was glad to see this analysis of the NEA “Our Town” awards. I agree with the thinking that a lens that looks at the impact of size is useful; particularly when looking at a federal grant program and the distribution of funding. I’m also looking forward to a discussion of “quality”. I also think Ian identified something critical that we dont always discuss-good projects and bad applications.

My community received an award and not surprisingly this has stirred up some pretty amusing community reaction. Comments mostly characterized by the “what is this” type. This reaction is pretty typical for “my town” but did get me looking around. The looking around and this post got me thinking about “grantsmanship” and quality. I am not sure this is a word, but by “grantsmanship” I mean the ability to put together a compelling and complete package. Not sure if this was an influence in these awards but I was wondering if the high success rate among larger communities reflects bigger organizations with paid and experienced staff. Development staff or paid consultants who make their living writing beautiful narratives, compiling glossy supplemental materials, and soliciting influential letters of support.

I am currently preparing for a grant panel so I have to admit that it is sometimes hard to sift through to the essence and undercover the gem of a good project. I am looking at a pile of grants that is three feet high-no exaggeration. I enjoy panels and really like learning what people are up to, but after a few hours it does start to blur. A well organized narrative with good materials stands out and is memorable. I can scan the support letter on elected officials stationary. I know it is boilerplate but it reflects organization and planning. The letter from an unknown individual might be a better indication of support or engagement but it is much harder for me to know or evaluate. Piles of unorganized support materials or every press mention don’t add value. None of this is rocket science and there is a lot of grant guidance on the web, but I understand it takes times and time is a very limited and valuable resource for most small organizations.

I know that good, quality projects are sometimes messy applications. So maybe some of the panelists were like me; working through applications and materials and trying to sort it out. I would be curious to know?

Scott Walters said...

Jamie -- Yikes! That's what I get for crunching numbers before bedtime. I have corrected the post. Yes, I look forward to our conversation, too.

Anita -- I think the points you make are key. When you are reading through grant proposal after grant proposal, , one tends to rely on instinct and to value people who make your job easier. Small and rural communities without a professional staff don't often have the ability to write a grant in a way that grabs attention. Thanks for the observations. And congrats on the grant!

Ian David Moss said...

Totally agree with Anita. One thing that I think is worth considering, though, is whether the NEA is in the best position to address rural arts directly. Perhaps it would be more effective to change the state/local partnerships formula so that more match money goes to rural states, and then come to an understanding with the states that they should focus a good portion of their resources outside of cities. The theory being, if someone's not in a position to write a really competitive grant, they might be better off if whoever is reviewing their work knows them personally and what they are capable of. It's for similar reasons that I don't support the NEA giving grants to individual artists. A national agency just isn't in a good position to evaluate everyone fairly. Better that they decentralize the money through trusted giving partners.

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