Home Programs National Endowment for the Arts Big Read Guidelines and Application Instructions

Guidelines and Application Instructions

The application deadline for the 2020-2021 year has passed. Please use the guidelines below as a reference only; they will be updated in October 2020. If you want to submit your intent to apply for 2021-2022, click the button below.

Submit your intent to apply!

Application Deadline EXTENDED: Friday, January 31, 2020

Programming Dates: September 1, 2020—June 30, 2021

Program overview

The National Endowment for the Arts Big Read, a partnership with Arts Midwest, broadens our understanding of our world, our communities, and ourselves through the joy of sharing a good book. Showcasing a diverse range of contemporary books that reflect many different voices and perspectives, the NEA Big Read aims to inspire conversation and discovery.

The NEA Big Read annually supports approximately 75 dynamic community reading programs, each designed around a single NEA Big Read book. Selected organizations receive a grant, access to online training resources and opportunities, digital resources, and promotional materials designed to support widespread community involvement.

NEA Big Read applicants submit proposals to host a series of community events presented at a variety of locations over the course of one month or longer. Events use the same NEA Big Read book as a point of departure and encourage participants to engage both with the book and fellow community members.

Each NEA Big Read program includes: a kick-off event, often attended by high-profile leaders and other local luminaries; major events inspired by the content and themes from the book (e.g., panel discussions and author readings); artistic events related to the book (e.g., art/writing contests, film screenings, and theatrical performances); and book discussions in diverse locations involving a wide range of audiences.

Grants range from $5,000 to $15,000 each.

What to do before applying

  • Make sure your organization is eligible. If not, you might seek out opportunities in your community to partner with an eligible organization.
  • Familiarize yourself with these guidelines and, if helpful, additional online resources, including three sample applications from organizations that were awarded 2019-2020 grants, as well as examples of current programming and materials developed by previous grantees available through the Community Stories tabs for each title at arts.gov; the NEA Big Read Online Community Discussion Groups; and the Arts Midwest blog.
  • Contact Arts Midwest at 612.238.8010 or email [email protected]. We strongly encourage applicants, especially first-time applicants, to reach out to Arts Midwest before you apply to help you draft a competitive proposal. Arts Midwest manages grant applications for the NEA Big Read and serves as the program manager on behalf of the National Endowment for the Arts. Its experienced staff can answer questions on eligibility and program intent, project development, grant attachment verification, and can, upon request, review your application materials in advance of the deadline.
  • Important dates

    • Application deadline extension: Friday, January 31, 2020
    • Panel review: February – April 2020
    • Notification: Late April 2020
    • Online orientation for grantees: early June 2020
    • Programming dates: September 1, 2020—June 30, 2021

    Eligibility criteria

    An applicant organization must:

  1. Comply with federal eligibility requirements. For example, an applicant must be a nonprofit 501©3 organization, a unit of state or local government, or a federally recognized tribal community or tribe. Check your IRS status.
  2. Partner with a library (if the applicant organization itself is not a library). University and college applicants must partner with a library that is not directly affiliated with their educational institution.
  3. Choose one of the 32 available reading selections. Applicants that have received an NEA Big Read grant in the past must choose a different reading selection from their previous award.

Eligible applicants include organizations such as arts centers, arts councils, arts organizations, colleges and universities, community service organizations, environmental organizations, fairs and festivals, faith-based organizations, historical societies, housing authorities, humanities councils, libraries, literary centers, museums, school districts, theater companies, trade associations, and tribal governments.

Local education agencies, school districts, and state and regional education agencies are eligible applicants. We do not fund individual elementary or secondary schools—charter, private, or public—directly. Schools may participate as partners in projects for which another eligible organization applies. If a single school also is a local education agency, as is the case with some charter schools, the school may apply with documentation that supports its status as a local education agency.

An organization whose primary purpose is to channel resources (financial, human, or other) to an affiliated organization is not eligible to apply if the affiliated organization submits its own application. This prohibition applies even if each organization has its own 501c(3) status. For example, the “Friends of ABC Library” may not also apply if the ABC Library applies. Organizations may apply for one grant per program year.

Ineligible applications will not be reviewed.

Grant awards

Eligible organizations may apply for a grant ranging from $5,000 to $15,000. These grants are federal funds from the National Endowment for the Arts (CFDA No. 45.024: Promotion of the Arts Awards to Organizations and Individuals). Grants are cost shared and must be matched on a 1-to-1 basis with nonfederal funds such as private grants, in-kind contributions, and earned revenue. Some examples of matching funds can be staff salaries, volunteer hours, or event ticket sales. Please see the proposal budget instructions for more information.

If awarded, the applicant will enter into a Grant Agreement with Arts Midwest. Full funding of grant requests is not guaranteed. If awarded, the grant amount may be less than the amount requested in the applicant's proposal and rounded to an even dollar amount.

Funding may support:

  • Supplies, artistic fees, speaker fees, project overhead costs, promotional fees, salaries, venue rental fees, travel costs, book purchases, and other expenses directly related and necessary to conduct a community-wide multidisciplinary arts program.

Funding is not available for:

  • Overlapping project costs between federal awards, whether received directly from a federal agency or indirectly, such as through a state agency or other entity.
  • Programs restricted to any organization’s membership; programs must be promoted and available to the general public.
  • Payment for facilities, purchase of capital equipment, or non-project related administrative expenses.
  • Fellowships or cash prizes.
  • Capital improvements or construction, purchase of capital goods, purchase of real estate property, or endowments.
  • Expenses to purchase alcoholic beverages or to pay associated costs (servers, insurance, liquor licenses, etc.)
  • Entertainment costs, such as opening parties, receptions, or fundraisers designed to raise funds for your own organization and on behalf of another person, organization, or cause.

Reading selections

Applicants must choose one of the 32 reading selections from the NEA Big Read list. Applicants that have received NEA Big Read grants must choose a different reading selection than what they have received grants for in the past. Copies of the reading selection are not provided along with the grant award. Applicants should articulate in their proposal a plan to acquire and distribute sufficient copies of their chosen book using the NEA Big Read grant or local funding sources.

Digital resources and promotional materials

Digital resources in webpage and PDF format are available for download for grantees to share with their communities. Visit arts.gov/national-initiatives/nea-big-read/ and click on the book of your choice to see the resources available for your reading selection. Reader Resources with information on the featured book and author are available for all reading selections, with some translated in to Spanish. Teacher’s Guides and media resources like podcasts, audio guides, and films are available for some reading selections.

Grantees also receive free promotional items including three full-color NEA Big Read banners and a set of bookmarks to promote their programs. These will be available to grantees in August 2020.

Program requirements

Successful NEA Big Read programming should encourage reading and discussion of the selected book on a community-wide scale.

Your NEA Big Read program proposal must include the following:

  1. Diverse and imaginative events and literary activities held at a variety of locations. Specifically:
  • A public kick-off event to launch the program.
  • A minimum of 5 discussions on the selected book.
  • At least one keynote session on the selected book and its themes, with either the author or another appropriate speaker. If you are considering an author visit as part of your programming, please be aware that honoraria and availability vary by individual. Other examples of a keynote session include a panel discussion or a presentation by someone associated with the book or author.
  • A minimum of two special events involving other forms of artistic programming designed to engage participants with the selected book (e.g., art exhibits/contests, films, musical performances, theatrical readings, and creative writing activities related to the themes of the book.
  • Proposed events must reach a wide array of individuals; be inclusive to people of various abilities, ages, cultural backgrounds, educational levels, and occupations; be conducted in a respectful manner; be relevant to the story; provide appropriate context for participants; and offer substantive educational opportunities.

    Note: Event types may be combined (e.g., a kick-off event can include a keynote session and a discussion of the book).

  1. Community partnerships
  • Applicant organizations must partner with a library (if the applicant itself is not a library). University and college applicants must partner with a library that is not directly affiliated with their educational institution.
  • Applicants must partner with various community organizations in order to reach beyond their primary constituent base and include audiences of various abilities, ages, cultural backgrounds, educational levels, and occupations.
  • Applicants should actively promote their programming through digital and print channels as well as other public relations/marketing efforts to ensure strong community participation and inclusivity in NEA Big Read activities by individuals of various abilities, ages, cultural backgrounds, educational levels, and occupations. To this end, organizations should consider partnering with local radio, print, TV, social media, and other media outlets, as applicable.
  • Examples of potential partners include local community and arts organizations, community colleges and universities, correctional institutions, libraries, bookstores, local businesses, middle and high schools, military installations, museums, senior centers, social service organizations, and youth groups.

In addition, each organization receiving a grant must:

  • Conduct activities between September 1, 2020 and June 30, 2021.
  • Call its program “NEA Big Read” (e.g., NEA Big Read: Minneapolis).
  • Cost share/match the grant at least 1 to 1. Please refer to the proposal budget instructions for more information. Matching funds can consist of staff salaries, volunteer hours, in-kind contributions, additional grants, cash, ticket sales, etc.
  • Participate in an online orientation with other program participants in June 2020.
  • Use and distribute the digital resources (see Digital Resources and promotional materials section).
  • Provide information to be posted on the Arts Midwest website.
  • Comply with all crediting requirements. This includes consistent crediting of the NEA Big Read initiative, the National Endowment for the Arts, Arts Midwest, and any additional sponsors.
  • Comply with all reporting requirements. Grantees must adhere to multiple deadlines including providing data before and after their community activities. Grantees will be required to submit a final report within 45 days of their final activity with event attendance statistics, partner organization data, media and promotional examples, and narrative responses about their programming.
  • Comply with all federal grant regulations, including providing organizational audit information if required by federal law. Please review the Assurance of Compliance document.
  • As necessary, seek legal permissions for activities and promotional materials (author photos, book jacket art, publishing excerpts of text from the book, etc.).

How to apply

To apply for an NEA Big Read grant you must complete the intent to apply form online after which you will receive an invite to the NEA Big Read online community and a link to the application. The online application must be submitted on or before Friday, January 31, 2020.

Please refer to this application checklist to guide you through the application process.

We recognize that some elements of a proposal may be tentative, but you should be as specific and thorough as possible. It is difficult for panelists to assess your program without detailed information on proposed activities, partners, venues, dates, etc.

Remember: Arts Midwest program staff can review applications for technical accuracy prior to formal submission with sufficient advance notice.

Application contents

The online application will ask for the following information via text fields.

  1. Applicant organization: Employer Identification Number, DUNS number, and an active registration with SAM (sam.gov). Registration for DUNS and SAM is free but will take time to complete. Find out more information about verifying your organization’s DUNS number and confirming or activating your registration with sam.gov. Contact your local Procurement Technical Assistance Center for free specialized help with the SAM.gov registration process.
  2. Grant request amount (between $5,000 and $15,000).
  3. Your proposed program’s start and end dates. Programming must occur between Sept. 1, 2020 and June 30, 2021.
  4. Your chosen NEA Big Read book.
  5. Proposed number of book discussions (must be at least 5).
  6. Anticipated total number of participants.
  7. Total dollar amount of previous fiscal year expenses for your organization.
  8. Total dollar amount of current budgeted fiscal year expenses for your organization.
  9. Total number of partner organizations (pending and confirmed).

File uploads

You will upload several files. Document uploads must be an MS Word, MS Excel, or PDF document. It is highly recommended you work on these documents offline via the templates provided and visit the online application when you are ready to complete the application. Errors in formatting may have an adverse effect on your application.

Format ALL upload documents (except tax and budget documents) as follows:

  • US Letter paper size (8.5 × 11) in portrait orientation with at least 0.75 inch margins
  • A text font equivalent to Times 12-point or larger (15 characters per inch)
  • Do not use header and footer fields within your documents

Required files:

  • Organization description narrative (one upload – one page)
  • Project description narrative (one upload – no more than three pages)
  • Project partnerships narrative (one upload – no more than two pages)
  • Project partnership support letters (two uploads – one page each)
  • Project personnel narrative (one upload – one page)
  • Project budget (one upload on provided template – one page)
  • Proof of federal tax exempt status (one upload)

Download this zip file with upload templates.

Organization description narrative (one upload – one page)

  • Briefly describe your organization’s mission, history, and achievements.
  • Describe the impact of your organization’s experience with presenting community-wide programming that demonstrates an ability to conduct a successful NEA Big Read.

Project description narrative (one upload – no more than three pages)

  • State your intended goals for your NEA Big Read and, if applicable, how your plans will build upon prior efforts and/or existing programs.
  • Describe the community you plan to reach with NEA Big Read programming. For example, a community may be a geographic area, a demographic, or both.
  • Provide a rationale for your chosen NEA Big Read book and why your organization selected it for your programs.
  • Describe your programming plans in detail. Be sure that your plans meet the programming requirements explained above, and address the themes, writing, and content of the book.
  • Provide details on the types of activities, target audiences for those activities, locations, and intended dates.
  • Explain how your activities will be inclusive and engage diverse audiences with your selected book.
  • Describe how you will promote your programming.
  • Explain how your program will utilize the digital resources found on arts.gov and distribute copies of your chosen book.
  • Describe your plans to evaluate your programs to measure against your goals.

Project partnerships description narrative (one upload – no more than two pages)

  • Describe your partnerships with libraries (as applicable) and community organizations.
  • Explain the role each partner will play in your program, the activities each partner will undertake with your organization, and whether these partnerships are confirmed or pending.
  • Explain how your partnerships will allow you to reach your intended audience(s) and engage individuals of diverse backgrounds and ability levels. Discuss any proposed or existing partnerships with specific media outlets.

Project partnership letters (two uploads – one page each)

  • Each letter should address the roles and responsibilities of the partner organization in relation to the project. These letters may be addressed to “NEA Big Read review panel.”
  • For library applicants: one letter must be from a key partner.
  • For all other applicants: one letter must be from your library partner.
  • Submit letters on organization letterhead and in PDF format.

Project personnel description (one upload – one page)

  • Outline the key personnel from the applicant organization and partner organizations who will be involved in implementing your proposed activities. Include volunteers as applicable. Briefly describe their qualifications for the project.
  • Explain how these individuals will help engage diverse audiences with your selected book and promote inclusive experiences.

Project budget (one upload on provided template – one page)

  • Include all anticipated expenses necessary to fully implement the program plans proposed, including planning, programming, and reporting.
  • Be sure to represent your 1-to-1 cost share/match for the program. Matching funds can consist of staff salaries, volunteer hours, in-kind contributions, additional grants, cash, ticket sales, etc.
  • Compare your budget against the details provided in the narrative responses to ensure there are no inconsistencies.

Proof of federal tax exemption (one upload)

  • A scanned PDF of your organization’s federal tax-exempt ruling letter under Section 501c(3) of the Internal Revenue Code; or
  • A scanned PDF of documentation indicating that your organization is a division of state, local, or tribal government. A one-page letter from a higher governing body (state, county, city) that vouches for your organization as an arm of local government and is therefore federally tax exempt is the most common article of proof we accept.
  • State sales tax-exemption certificates and copies of ordinances or bylaws are not qualified documents.

    View examples of documents we accept as proof of federal tax-exempt status. If you need assistance to identify the correct documentation, please call Arts Midwest or check with your finance department.

Selection process and review criteria

Applications are reviewed by an advisory panel composed of a diverse group of arts and literature experts and other individuals with broad knowledge of programs like the NEA Big Read. Panel composition changes annually.

Application review will be based on the artistic excellence and artistic merit of the program. If selected for a grant, an organization will be expected to carry out a program consistent with its proposal. If changes are necessary, they must be discussed and approved by NEA Big Read staff at Arts Midwest.

Specifically, panelists will evaluate each application based on the following review criteria:

  1. Quality programming. The panel will review the relevance of the chosen book in relation to the applicant’s community goals and the quality of diverse and imaginative literary programs held at a variety of locations that: address the themes, writing, and content of the chosen NEA Big Read book; meet the programming requirements; and have the potential to achieve the goals set forth by the applicant.
  2. Community support and outreach. The panel will consider the relevance and depth of involvement with individuals and organizations that will assist with meeting the project goals and broaden audience participation beyond the applicant’s primary constituent base. The panel will also consider efforts to engage audiences of various abilities, ages, cultural backgrounds, educational levels, and occupations as partners and participants.
  3. Ability. The panel will consider the applicant’s ability to manage and implement an NEA Big Read program. The panel will consider organizational capacity, the planning timeline, the participation of appropriate personnel, a reasonable budget plan with the required 1-to-1 match, and an evaluation plan to measure against self-defined goals.
  4. Promotion. The panel will review plans for promoting NEA Big Read events and activities through digital and print channels as well as other public relations/marketing efforts; distribution of digital resources and promotional materials; and publicity through partnership with local radio, print, TV, social media, and media outlets as applicable.

Application deadline

All applications must be submitted electronically on or before Friday, January 31, 2020.

After submission of your application, Arts Midwest staff will review it for eligibility, project requirement fulfillment, and the inclusion of all application components. If there are no questions concerning your application, the contacts named in your application will receive an email acknowledging your application is complete along with a PDF of the complete application as it will be forwarded to the review panel.

Program contact

Arts Midwest manages all grant applications for the NEA Big Read from eligible applicants nationwide and serves as the program manager on behalf of the National Endowment for the Arts. If you have questions about the National Endowment for the Arts Big Read, application components, or the application guidelines, please call Arts Midwest at 612.238.8010 or email [email protected].