Grants 101: Taking measure of your humanities project

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It was a fabulous project. The best project. Everyone said so …

Taking measure of your humanities project

by Meg Turville-Heitz

Evaluations. Ugh, why? You’ve completed your project and it’s time to move on to the next thing. Sometimes it feels like a forced exercise in number crunching and self-scrutiny that can kill the buzz from your successes. Other times it may leave you feeling like you are sugar-coating a big lemon.

Evaluations get a bad rap. Really. Good evaluations promote better projects – both our ability to offer guidance, and your ability to design great programming. Evaluation can help institutions improve how they do their work and provide a way to talk about why the humanities matter. Thus we’re taking a step back and looking again at how we measure what we measure. We’re realizing we can do better. And there are some pretty compelling reasons why we need to. While reporting numbers and dollars is a function of grant funding everywhere, it’s really the impacts that matter, especially in the humanities. 

There couldn’t be a more important time than now to talk about why the humanities matter. Many arguments about “waste” in education start with fingers pointed at humanities programs. Those conversations are often couched in terms of the economic value to working people of skills-based learning versus the humanities. Between 2008 and 2014, federal funding of the humanities dropped some 30%, states cut their funding per capita by 17% and private funding fell by 21% (The State of the Humanities: Funding 2014).

We know the humanities matter. As the National Endowment of the Humanities celebrates its 50th anniversary, the organization reminds us that the humanities are critical to civic discourse, community building, local identity, regional culture, and democracy. These are big ideas. Important ideas. They are about who we are and why we are, and in many ways are foundational to our lives. 

Why, then, do we struggle to find the language to explain why they matter? And how do we talk about that to our funders, our partner organizations and our communities?

Evaluation, of course. Ugh. There it is again.

Bean counting?

Well, yes. And no. We need to count the beans. We need to know how many people came through the door and how many experts were involved and how many dollars were spent. All of these things are required by those who doled out the beans. It’s important to be able to say, for example, that WHC programs reached three million people in the last five years via $1 million in grant funding.

That quantitative data, however, is meaningless when not placed in perspective with qualitative information. Who were those three million people? Did the 100 people reached by a program represent a core of 10 who came to every event and then went out into the community to share their knowledge with dozens more? Will busloads of fourth graders carry the conversation home or leave it at school?

Often, what evaluation doesn’t tell us is impact. Impact, in the theoretical field that cares about measuring such things, is not the same as outcomes. It’s taking that one step further and tracking the meaningful changes that result.

Meaningful changes: Two examples

When UW-Milwaukee student Esmé Barniskis struggled to understand the racial violence in the headlines, she reflected on her WHC-funded field school that researched house histories in Washington Park, a diverse, transitioning Milwaukee neighborhood. She wrote, “I’m not sure if our research makes a difference. I’m not sure if we are even on the right track. All of these uncertainties, however, make it that much more important to keep trying.” She describes eye-opening experiences, like “Wading through papers and toys, the soft smells of dirt and rot arose with every step. I stared at the small piano left in the dining room. Guilt overtook me. Why would I have assumed a family who was evicted would not have owned a piano?” She can’t say if the field school has a role in ending violence, but thinks in the long term “the real human connections we have made might simply be enough to remind residents of the real respect we, as outsiders, have for the community.”

That’s impact. That’s a humanities project leading to reflection and understanding and community building.

A retiring trustee of the Winchester Academy,  a Waupaca community service organization, wanted the WHC to know what a WHC honor did for her organization 13 years ago. That honor, still mentioned on the organization’s letterhead, boosted the group’s credibility in the community. It led to long-term community partners that have built it from a shoestring operation to one that’s self-sustaining and even able to bring in high-profile programming.

That’s impact. That’s an organization showing the community that the humanities matter and that building partnerships helps achieve greater things.

When we look back at our efforts, and assess the success of public humanities programs, we can look for the ways we’ve had impact by asking ourselves: 

  • Did we learn something or implement something that helps our institution do things better?
  • Did the project offer an opportunity for staff or organizational development?
  • Have the partnerships we’ve formed woven deeper ties in the fabric of the community or helped spread our conversation beyond our walls?
  • Have we informed discussion?
  • Have we made a difference?

More Evaluating ~ More Learning ~ More Reading

The WHC’s mission is to use history, culture and conversation to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin. How do we measure our efforts to make that difference? We look at the evaluations we receive back from our grant recipients. It’s through assessing the true impact of programs that give project organizers, the community and funders tangible ways to talk about why the humanities matter.

In the following articles, I explore the subject of evaluation further by sharing some examples of projects that evolved and improved through their self-evaluations and greatly increased their impact. I also share methods some groups have used to measure that impact on their participants, and discuss ways to think about why humanities programming matters.


Thanks for reading, caring, sharing, and letting me know what you think! 

meg with beer

Picturing Milwaukee People & Places

Meet Meg Turville-Heitz, our Grant Program Director!

Evaluation Part II:

Evaluating your relationships

Evaluation Part III:

Evaluating your impact

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One Response

  1. […] Meg Turville-Heitz, “Grants 101: Taking measure of your humanities project,” October 2016. […]

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