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Inspiring Funding for Small Museums

September 26, 2019 8:26 AM | Megan Eves (Administrator)

Inspiring Funding for Small Museums

The IMLS’s The Inspire! grant program for small museums grew out of a special initiative from their Museums for America program and was first offered in 2018 for grants to be implemented in 2019. Inspire! grants help applicants build capacity without concern for matching funds. Although both Inspire! and the Museums for America grant programs fund similar projects, the difference is the funding available and cost-share required. The program goal for Inspire! is to support small museums in addressing priorities identified in their strategic plans.

Inspire! Project Categories

Lifelong Learning

  • supports projects that position museums as unique teaching organizations. Projects include inclusive educational opportunities that address particular audience needs.

Collections Stewardship and Public Access

  • supports the role of museums as trusted stewards of museum collections. This program category focuses on the desire to improve long term collection care. It funds conservation treatments, rehousing projects, cataloging, and increase collection access via digitization.

Community Anchors and Catalysts

  • supports museums as essential partners in addressing the needs of their communities. This program helps museums leverage their expertise with their communities.

80 to 85% of the applications submitted for an Inspire! grant were for projects in the Lifelong Learning and Collections Stewardship categories; Community Anchors and Catalysts comprise the remaining 15%.

Lifelong Learning and Community Anchors projects often overlap with similar activities and project types. However, Lifelong Learning projects are internally focused and evolve from the museum's strategic plan or from museum staff. Community Anchor projects are externally focused and evolve from the needs within the museum's community, such as new Americans seeking help to reach job readiness. Museums can assist and provide the resources needed including space for meetings, technology access, and citizenship training. 

“Multiple community institutions will come together around this need,” said Reagan Moore, IMLS Museum Program Officer. “One successful community project that came from Lynchburg, VA children’s museum [Amazement Square] that identified the need to help with childhood obesity so it partnered with health organizations and schools. It saw a lot of people come together around that one need in the community.”

CASE STUDY: The Whaling Museum & Education Center of Cold Spring Harbor

Project Category: Lifelong Learning

The Whaling Museum & Education Center, Cold Spring Harbor

The Whaling Museum & Education Center received Inspire! Funding for their Reach! Initiative project that helped the museum expand educational programs to youth in underserved communities on Long Island.  IMLS funding helped the museum reach a new audience and increased their great impact in their community.

This was the first IMLS grant The Whaling Museum has received since 2000. Executive Director Nomi Dayan said that the museum was waiting for the right type of funder for this project.

“I felt like this worked because when we looked at their priorities it just seemed to align, even though their [IMLS] priorities are broad...they put a spotlight on reaching underserved communities. When I looked at past funded grants to see are they funding exhibits or are they doing more programming and I felt that this project dovetailed with a lot of previous programs that they had funded. I think the biggest change was judging small museums on their own and it makes such a difference,” said The Whaling Museum Executive Director Nomi Dayan.

Museums for America v. Inspire! Grants for Small Museums

“For many years we heard anecdotally that IMLS doesn’t support small museums, which isn’t true, but we understand that a lot of museums find it difficult to go through the process of applying for a federal grant,” said Moore “Small museums have been successful with Museums for America but we changed certain aspects of the process to make it the narrative isn’t as long and the cost-share requirements isn’t required like it is in Museums for America.”

“The cost share difference is a big think,” said Mark Feitly, IMLS Museum Program Officer. “I think places not only had the correct perception that they were too small to receive federal funding but they could not come up with the cost share and that it was too much of a challenge for them. We removed that barrier for them to request IMLS funds. [These institutions] can include staff salaries or whatever for cost share and that’s fine, but it is not required and will not affect their [grant] review in any way.”

IMLS expected between 100 - 115 applications for the first round of Inspire! grants, but received over 200. They funded 30 totaling more than $1.1 million. This strong response confirmed the need for grant funding opportunities specific to small museums.

Operating through a national lens, it is difficult for IMLS to define  “small.” A small zoo differs from a historical society -- or a museum in Kansas may differ not only in collection size but in metropolitan area population and demographics  from a museum in New York State with the same physical plant footprint. “We’re asking museums to make the case for why they are small,” said Reagan.

Museums can use the following attributes:

  • staff size (paid and volunteers)

  • operating budget

  • collection size

  • building/property size

  • audience served

  • size relative to other organizations of similar discipline

  • geographical region

CASE STUDY: Defining The Whaling Museum & Education Center as a Small Museum

“We identify as a small museum...our tagline is Small Museum—Big Story and we’re the smallest whaling museum in the country,” said Executive Director Dayan. The museum also specified their budget size, staff, and collection size. “Our collection is the smallest. We have 6,000 objects and the largest whaling museum has 3 million.” The Whaling Museum also incorporated public perception into their small museum identity. “A lot of our visitors who leave online reviews will write ‘small museum but…’ or ‘this place is small but with a huge knowledge of whaling.’ In half of the online reviews, people mention our size because our physical building is small and people are surprised by how small we are when they come, but there is a lot packed in not only do we think we’re small but that’s the public perception too,” said Dayan.

What does IMLS Inspire! grants fund?

IMLS funding can support salaries for those working on the project. This can include existing staff or hiring new staff. A majority of applicants request funds to hire temporary staff for the project. For example, a museum could hire a curator for a two year contract position to help them execute the project.

Peer reviews will comment on the sustainability for salary costs.

"Reviewers will ask questions about the hire rate and what will happen to that person when the project is over. Successful applications discuss sustainability to keep that person on staff for as long as necessary," said Moore.

Other eligible funding categories include:

  • supplies

  • materials

  • equipment

  • travel costs

  • contractors, or work with an exhibit design firm

IMLS does not fund construction costs or general operating expenses.

Advice from IMLS for First Time Applicants

“Successful applicants are the ones who have reached out to’s not always the case but those who take the time on the front end to set up conference calls or email us to get feedback are more successful,” Feitly said.

“We’re happy to help. We can’t read full narratives...but we’re happy to answer as many questions as possible,” said Moore.

Moore also suggests having someone from outside the museum read through your application. “Often the application will use insider language, museum jargon, and if it gets to the panel stage in review, those reviewers from different disciplines might not understand.”

IMLS recommends looking at their website, joining a webinar, and reading project descriptions. Reading through other successful applications is also helpful. “If you read a description and there is something that you want to know more about, you can submit a FOIA request, the Freedom of Information Act, using a form on our website to access that information,” Feilty added.

He commented that the IMLS website is dense but it has a lot of resources. “We’re sharing exactly what we’re asking our reviewers to do in their assessment. You can see at what we’re asking our reviewers to evaluate and incorporate that into your narrative as well.”

CASE STUDY: What helped The Whaling Museum with their IMLS grant?

The Whaling Museum focused on a well-rounded project and looked at the needs of the community. Director Dayan was also a peer reviewer for IMLS for three years.

“I would encourage anyone to do that because it helps you get an insider’s view into the application process. When you read proposals side by side you start to see how applicants write a compelling case whether it’s the language they use or the content and approaches that they are taking," said Dayan.

Director Dayan added that judging applications improves your writing and grant planning.  Dayan also recommends looking at examples. “Under the Freedom of Information Act you’re allowed to request copies of any funded grant...Don’t go at it alone. Look at what other museums have done successfully and try to use that as inspiration in formatting your own grant.”

Other advice to a prospective applicant? “Communicating why the project matters and what community need it meets. A stranger will be reading this who has not been to your museum. For me it’s not enough to say kids will learn about whaling history but why it’s important for kids to learn about whaling history,” said Dayan.

The Whaling Museum connected its strategic plan to the project and cited data. Supporting your narrative with research also strengthens an application.

“The first thing we do when we have a grant idea is we call and pitch it to the funding organization… ‘is this something that you would fund? How can we strengthen this?’ Reaching out is so important to help you do the best job you can,” said Dayan.

Other helpful tips?

  • Make sure your application components are consistent

  • Place the narrative questions into your word document when answering

  • Incorporate project impact throughout the narrative

  • Use your supporting documents and help drive the reviewers to your supporting documents

Further Reading/Resources

Inspire! Grants for Small Museums

FY 2020 Notice of Funding Opportunity

IMLS Apply for a Grant

Eligibility Criteria 

Sample Applications

NYS IMLS Funding Report

IMLS Webinars

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