Engaging New Audiences (for the Humanities)

Mass Humanities’ strategic objective

In Massachusetts, eye-opening humanities programming is readily available to most members of the public if they seek it out. But many people have neither the tools nor the opportunity to do so, and do not know the humanities may change their understanding of the world, their place in it, and the personal and social empowerment the humanities may bring them. Mass Humanities’ main strategic objective is giving more people better access to the humanities. We call it Engaging New Audiences for the Humanities (ENA).

Through our grant giving and programs, we seek to encourage projects that involve new and larger audiences of people who currently have limited access to the humanities, or make very limited use of humanities programming. Young and working adults are examples, as are prison inmates, teens and nursing home residents. In grant making, we encourage ENA project applications both by offering special incentives and by giving precedence to projects that seek to expand the reach of the humanities.

This is not a simple or straightforward task. We have set a high bar, both for ourselves and for grant applicants, for both the “Engaging” and the “New Audiences for the Humanities” aspects of this objective. However, we have left the specifics open, so that our understanding of Engaging and of New Audiences may be continually expanded in dialogue, within our organizations, with collaborating groups, and with applicants and grantees.

We have set some basic guidelines for ourselves and for grant applicants:

  • In addition to describing a project that would be attractive to a community that is traditionally underserved by public humanities programming, much of the programming we fund, including all programming that is specifically considered under Engaging New Audiences incentives, includes specific mechanisms for actually involving those audiences, for making sure that the program gets to them or vice versa. It is one of the main criteria we use in prioritizing grant proposals.
  • Projects should also be clear on how the “new” audience is in fact underserved by humanities programming. Below are some examples that might help in understanding eligibility for ENA funding. Our grants awarded list, which is searchable by grant type, may help also.

What are/are not Engaging New Audiences (ENA) projects:

Q. What are “New Audiences for the Humanities”? Is “new” another word for minority, does it denote specific ethnic or socio-economic groups, or target people from specific areas?
A. There are many reasons why people have limited access to public humanities programming, and among them are the factors mentioned. Someone who lives in an area with few museums, theaters, or institutions of higher learning is geographically part of an underserved audience. Someone who cannot get to a public program (nursing home residents, prisoners) is also. But experience and audience surveys show that humanities programming tends to serve a fairly narrow slice of the population. Many people are not very well served by traditional public humanities institutions and formats (exhibits, lectures, reading and/or discussion projects) for all sorts of reasons, including the fact that such programs often do not engage their attention. Among them are teens, young and working adults, and minority groups. Humanities programming created specifically to engage members of such groups of people is eligible for an ENA grant, as determined in consultation with a program officer.

Q. What do you mean by a “mechanism” to engage a new audience?
A. Projects should describe specific methods by which they will convince the intended audience to participate. In some cases, that may mean collaborating with organizations whose constituent-population is the project’s target. With respect to K-12 students, it may mean using a format or speaking a language they demonstrably understand or are attracted to.

Q We are planning a history-based play that should bring hundreds of history buffs to our experimental theater. Can we apply for an ENA grant?
A. No, not unless the new people coming to the theater are also new to humanities programming.

Q. Increasingly curricula for K-12 students contain fewer topics in the humanities. Are primary and secondary school children therefore “new audiences”?
A. Not necessarily. Moreover, Mass Humanities funds a limited palette of in-school programs (see Project Grant Guidelines on K-12 projects, p. 4). ENA curriculum proposals should demonstrate that the schools and/or children involved are specifically underserved by extracurricular humanities “enrichment” programming. Example: a theater-in-the classroom program is only ENA-eligible if the proposal demonstrates that the particular schools served are less able than others to bring their students to theater or vice versa.

Q. Is creating an exhibit that should be popular with new immigrants with limited English language skills an ENA project?
A. Not necessarily. However, if the exhibit is part of a larger project that contains a very detailed and inventive outreach plan with mechanisms (such as collaborations or bringing a language class to a bilingual exhibit) to bring recent immigrants with limited English language skills to the museum, it very well could be. The question program staff asks is “if you build it, what will get them to come?”

Q. We are adding history teaching to the programs our nature center offers. Is the project eligible for an ENA grant?
A. It might be, depending on your audiences and programs. If you already serve audiences with limited access to public humanities programming, or audiences (such as teens) less likely to engage in humanities programming, then using your successful “engaging” strategies to also teach the humanities makes your project eligible for ENA funding. However, if you serve audiences who are not demonstrably underserved (for example, adult hikers and local school children), simply adding new humanities programming is not an ENA-eligible project.

Q Is a project that uses social media and/or up –to-date communication technology used by large numbers of young people eligible to apply for ENA funding?
A. Potentially but not necessarily. The “if you build it, what will make them come?” question applies here. Neither the potential of social media or online programming to be seen or used by large numbers of people, nor the popularity of such media with younger generations constitutes, in and of itself, a mechanism of engagement. However, an innovative Web-based interactive project could be eligible for an ENA grant if it included substantial crowd-sourcing and a feasible and detailed outreach plan for getting people to actively participate and engage the project’s issues. The key is to include enough thoughtfully developed outreach strategies in a proposal.