NEA Big Read

NEA Big Read Guidelines and Application Instructions

Please note that these guidelines are for the 2016 deadline, which is now closed. This page will be updated with new guidelines and application instructions in October 2017. Application guidelines change from year to year. Please use these 2016-2017 guidelines as background information to inform your understanding of the application and review process.

Application Deadline: Wednesday, January 27, 2016, 4:00 p.m. CST
Programming Dates: September 1, 2016—June 30, 2017
Approximately 75 organizations will be selected for grants from $5,000 to $20,000.

The following three documents are examples of awarded applications for the 2016-2017 grant opportunity:


Program description

NEA Big Read, a program of the National Endowment for the Arts, broadens our understanding of our world, our communities, and ourselves through the joy of sharing a good book. Managed by Arts Midwest, this initiative offers grants to support innovative community reading programs designed around a single book.

NEA Big Read supports organizations across the country in developing community-wide programs that encourage reading and the participation of diverse audiences. Organizations selected to participate in the NEA Big Read receive a grant, access to online training resources and opportunities, digital guides, and promotional materials designed to support widespread community involvement.

Copies of the reading selection are not provided but may be purchased with grant funds or matching resources.

To see examples of current programming and materials developed by previous grantees, visit the NEA Big Read events calendar and Pinterest account. For tips on planning your NEA Big Read visit our Planning Resources webpages.

Note: Beginning with the 2016-2017 program year, the program will be known as “NEA Big Read.”

Eligibility criteria

An applicant organization must:

  1. Be a 501(c) (3) nonprofit organization; a unit of state, local, or tribal government; or a tax-exempt public library located within the United States or its territories. Eligible applicants include organizations such as literary centers, libraries, museums, colleges and universities, art centers, historical societies, arts councils, tribal governments, humanities councils, literary festivals, and arts organizations.
  2. Partner with a library (if the applicant organization itself is not a library).
  3. Choose one of the available reading selections. Applicants that have received an NEA Big Read grant in the past must choose a different reading selection from their previous programming and are encouraged to choose one of the newly added titles.
  4. Obtain a DUNS number (dnb.com/get-a-duns-number.html).
  5. Register with the System for Award Management (sam.gov), maintain an active SAM registration until the application process is complete, and if selected, throughout the programming dates of the award. This may include renewing your registration annually or more frequently if there are changes in the information.

Note: K—12 schools, school districts, boards of education, or other school governing bodies, whether public or private, are not eligible applicants, but may partner with eligible applicants.

Grant awards

Eligible organizations may apply for a grant ranging from $5,000 to $20,000. 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) and may be used for such expenses as book purchases, speaker fees and travel, salaries, promotion, and venue rental. Grants must be matched 1 to 1 with nonfederal funds such as staff salaries and wages, private grants, in-kind contributions, and earned revenues. Please see the proposal budget instructions for more information.

There may be no overlapping project costs between federal awards, whether received directly from a federal agency or indirectly, such as through a state agency or other entity.

Selection process and review criteria

Approximately 75 organizations from across the country will be selected to participate in the NEA Big Read. Organizations may apply for one grant per year. Selections and grant awards will be based on the artistic excellence and merit of the program. 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 NEA Big Read. Panel composition changes annually. If selected, 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, each application will be evaluated based on the following review criteria:

  1. Quality of diverse and creative literary programming that: shows a clear connection between the NEA Big Read title and the target audience(s); meets the programming requirements; and engages a wide range of community members with the writing, content, and themes of the selected title.
  2. Relevance and depth of involvement with community partner organizations that will broaden community participation beyond the applicant's primary constituent base and enrich programming. Examples of such partners are libraries, middle and high schools, bookstores, museums, arts organizations, local businesses, community service organizations, community centers, youth groups, senior centers, correctional institutions, community colleges, universities, social service organizations, and military installations.
  3. Active promotion of the NEA Big Read through: digital and print channels as well as other public relations/marketing efforts; distribution of digital guides and promotional materials; and publicity through partnerships with local radio, print, TV, and media outlets.
  4. Capacity to manage and implement the proposed NEA Big Read programming including organizational capacity, the provision of appropriate personnel, reasonable budget plan, and evidence of the required 1 to 1 match.

Reading selections

Applicants must choose one of the available reading selections from the NEA Big Read catalog. Applicants that have received an NEA Big Read grant in the past must choose a different reading selection from their previous programming and are encouraged to choose one of the newly added titles for 2016-2017 programming:
Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones
In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner

The following reading selections are also available for programming:

In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez
Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
My Ántonia by Willa Cather
Brother, I'm Dying by Edwidge Danticat
The Poetry of Emily Dickinson*
Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
Sun, Stone, and Shadows: 20 Great Mexican Short Stories edited by Jorge F. Hernández
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
The Poetry of Robinson Jeffers*
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The Call of the Wild by Jack London
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu
The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien
When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka
The Shawl by Cynthia Ozick
The Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe
True Grit by Charles Portis
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea
The Bridge of San Luis Rey and Our Town by Thornton Wilder**
Old School by Tobias Wolff

* Poems to consider for programming are included in the Reader's and Teacher's Guides which are available on the NEA Big Read website in the Books & Guides section.

** Applicants choosing Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey may include in their application plans for a production of, or programming around, Our Town. The digital guides address both the novel and the play.

Digital guides and promotional materials

One of the benefits of the NEA Big Read is the availability of high-quality digital guides and promotional materials for each reading selection.

The digital guides are available for download from neabigread.org by grantees to share with their communities. Visit the Books & Guides section of the website to see the guides available for your reading selection. They may include the following:

  • Reader's Guides containing an introduction to the featured book or poet, historical context, background of the writer, information about related works, and discussion questions.
  • Spanish translations of Reader's Guides available for In the Time of the Butterflies; Bless Me, Ultima; Fahrenheit 451; The Maltese Falcon; Sun, Stone, and Shadows: 20 Great Mexican Short Stories; To Kill a Mockingbird; The Call of the Wild; The Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe; The Grapes of Wrath; The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; and Into the Beautiful North.
  • Teacher's Guides containing lesson plans and other resources for use by educators, available for all reading selections except In the Shadow of the Banyan and Silver Sparrow.
  • Audio Guides/Author Interviews, 20 to 30-minute programs about the book or poet featuring interviews with and readings by notable literary and public figures.

Grantees also receive free promotional items including three full-color NEA Big Read banners and a set of bookmarks to promote their activities.

Program requirements

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

Your NEA Big Read must include the following:

  1. Diverse and imaginative events and literary activities held at a variety of locations
    1. A kick-off event to launch the program.
    2. A minimum of 10 discussions on the selected book or poet.
    3. At least one keynote session on the selected book or poet and themes referenced in the text (e.g., author reading or interview, panel discussion, or lecture by a key biographer).
    4. A minimum of two special events involving other forms of artistic programming designed to engage participants with the selected book or poet (e.g., art exhibits/contests related to the themes of the book or poet, poetry slams, film series including adaptations of the book, theatrical readings, etc).

    5. Note: Event types may be combined (e.g., a kick-off event can include a keynote session and a discussion of the book or poet).
  1. Community partnerships
    • Applicant organizations must partner with a library (if the applicant itself is not a library).
    • Applicants should partner with various community organizations to reach beyond their primary constituent base.
      • Partnerships are encouraged with community organizations such as bookstores, museums, middle and high schools, arts organizations, local businesses, community service organizations, community centers, youth groups, senior centers, correctional institutions, community colleges, universities, social service organizations, and military installations.
  1. Promotional efforts and partnerships
    To ensure strong community participation in NEA Big Read activities by individuals of various ages, cultural backgrounds, educational levels, and occupations, organizations should actively promote their programming through digital and print channels as well as other public relations/marketing efforts. Organizations should also consider partnering with local radio, print, TV, and media outlets.
Additional grant requirements

Each organization receiving a grant must:

  • Conduct activities between September 1, 2016 and June 30, 2017. Recommended program length is approximately one month.
  • Call its program “NEA Big Read.”
  • Match the grant at least 1 to 1. Please refer to the proposal budget instructions for more information.
  • Participate in an online orientation with other program participants in June 2016.
  • Use and distribute the digital guides.
  • Provide information to be posted on the website, neabigread.org.
  • Comply with all crediting requirements. This includes consistent crediting of the NEA Big Read, the National Endowment for the Arts, Arts Midwest, and any additional sponsors.
  • Comply with all reporting requirements. Grantees will have to adhere to multiple deadlines including submitting event listings before, during, and after their community activities. Grantees will be required to submit a final report with event attendance statistics, lists of partner organizations, media and promotional examples, and a narrative 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.

How to apply

To apply for the NEA Big Read you must submit an application online on or before January 27, 2016.

We recognize that your application represents a proposal and some elements 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, timeframes, etc.

You will be asked to enter data into webforms and upload additional application documents. Extra documents and documents not in the specified format will not be accepted. Note: Rich text formatting (bold, italic, underline, bulleted lists) is not available in the application webform.

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

Application contents

  1. General information
    1. Applicant organization: Address, contact information, Employer Identification Number, current and previous fiscal year budget information, DUNS number, and an active registration with SAM (sam.gov)
    1. Your chosen reading selection and an explanation of why your organization chose that book or poet for your target audience(s).
    2. Your proposed program's start and end dates. Programming must occur between Sept. 1, 2016 and June 30, 2017; recommended program length is approximately one month.
    3. Grant request amount (between $5,000 and $20,000).
    4. A brief written description of the geographic area in which programming will take place and an anticipated total number of participants that the program will serve.
    5. Proof of your organization's federal tax-exempt status, consisting of either:
      1. A scanned PDF of your organization's federal tax-exempt ruling letter under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code; or
      2. A scanned PDF of documentation indicating that your organization is a division of state, local, or tribal government.
        State sales tax-exemption certificates and copies of ordinances or bylaws are not qualified documents.
        View a sample letter from the IRS verifying an organization's 501(c)(3) federal tax exempt status. If you need assistance to identify the correct documentation, please call Arts Midwest or check with your finance department.
  1. Quality of diverse and imaginative literary programming
    1. Project description (4300 character limit, including spaces)
      1. Describe your programming plans in detail. Include the types of activities, target audiences for those activities, locations, timeframes, and number. Outline your plans to meet the programming requirements explained above.
  1. Relevance and depth of involvement with community partner organizations
    1. Partnerships description (4300 character limit, including spaces)
      1. Describe your partnerships with libraries (as applicable) and community organizations.
      2. 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.
      3. Explain how your partnerships will allow you to reach your intended audience(s) and strengthen or build new communities around the NEA Big Read activities.
    1. Letters of support
      Include two, one-page letters of support. Each letter should address the roles and responsibilities of the partner organization in relation to the project.
      • Library applicants: one letter must be from a key partner.
      • All other applicants: one letter must be from your library partner.
      • Letters must be on organization letterhead and submitted in PDF format. Please use 11 point type, single-spacing, 1 inch margins on the left and right sides.
  1. Active promotion of the NEA Big Read
    1. Promotional description (4300 character limit, including spaces)
      1. Describe how you will promote your programming. Discuss any proposed or existing partnerships with specific media outlets.
      2. Explain how your program will utilize the digital guides found on neabigread.org and copies of your reading selection.
  1. Capacity to manage and implement the proposed NEA Big Read programming
    1. Organization description (4300 character limit, including spaces)
      1. Describe your organization's history, programming, and achievements.
      2. Describe your organization's experience with presenting community-wide programming that demonstrates an ability to conduct a successful NEA Big Read.
    1. Organizer biographies (4300 character limit, including spaces)
      Outline the key staff and/or volunteers who will plan and implement the programming, including their titles, roles and responsibilities, and experience or capacity for managing an NEA Big Read. Include partner organizations' staff as applicable.
    1. Two-page program budget
      Include all anticipated expenses and revenue necessary to fully implement the program plans proposed, including planning, programming, and reporting. Be sure to represent your 1 to 1 match for the program in both the revenues and expenses sections.

      Download the two-page proposal budget
      Download the proposal budget instructions
Application deadline

All applications must be submitted electronically on or before 4:00 p.m. CST on Wednesday, January 27, 2016.

Application timeline
Application deadline 4:00 p.m. CST, January 27, 2016
Notification of selected communities Late-April 2016
Program activity September 1, 2016—June 30, 2017

Program contacts

  • If you have questions about NEA Big Read, application components, or the application guidelines, please call Joshua Feist, NEA Big Read program manager, at 612.238.8054.
  • If you are experiencing technical difficulties with the application webform or have questions about completing your application, please contact Dana Setterholm, NEA Big Read program associate, at 612.238.8010 or neabigread@artsmidwest.org.

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