Private Philanthropy Cannot Replace the NEH

Racheal Robinson, Gretchen Evans, Jenn Calaway and Tabitha Nichols share stories of combat in “She Went to War,” a presentation of The Telling Project, supported by NEH-backed state humanities councils and the NEA. Photo by Dragons Eye/Gaea Dill-D’Ascoli.

When President Trump proposed defunding the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), some voices called upon private philanthropy to assume full responsibility for funding the arts and humanities. We were not one of those voices.

To the contrary, that approach would be neither smart nor productive. NEH’s role in shaping and promoting the preservation, study and development of American culture is larger than its relatively small budget suggests. Since 1965, and affirmed by a 1981 Presidential Task Force, the public-private partnership that pairs NEH funding with private philanthropy has served the nation’s interests. Therefore, the preservation and advancement of American culture in its effervescent diversity is not a job the private sector can or should shoulder alone.

We are gratified that Congress this week, as part of a last-minute measure to avoid a government shutdown, reached agreement on a budget that fully funds the NEH, along with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. We cannot, however, fallback on justifying this work only when it’s under threat, as it surely will be again. We need to constantly educate the public and policy makers about the critical role the endowments play as catalysts for other institutions, like Mellon, to engage in and support the humanities. 

Leaving the NEH whole was the right decision. Americans need to know why:

  1. NEH is a catalyst for private support. Because the NEH is held in high public regard for its long history, comprehensive peer review process, and system of national networks, the philanthropic community views NEH-related projects as worthy investments. Philanthropists and politicians alike have recognized this. When accepting the Report of the Presidential Task Force in 1981, President Reagan said, “The Endowments, which began in 1965, account for only ten percent of the donations to art and scholarship. Nonetheless, they have served an important role in catalyzing additional private support, assisting excellence in the arts and letters, and helping to assure the availability of art and scholarship.” This stamp of approval is particularly important for smaller or less elite institutions that would otherwise fly under the radar of private funding.

  2. NEH is rooted in both rural and urban communities. NEH is tasked with fostering stability and fair distribution of funds across the country. About 40 percent of NEH funding goes to public programs through a national federation of state humanities councils and activities that stimulate local economies through partnerships with libraries, schools, museums, arts and cultural organizations. The Endowment actively seeks to support efforts in both rural and urban communities, which is not always the case for private funders. As each private philanthropic organization is committed to its own charitable mission (and each organization faceslegal issues and challenges that must be managed by its executives and board) private philanthropy cannot by its nature equitably support programs that nurture, inspire, and employ millions of people across every state in the US.

    In fact, according to research from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, large foundations give less than seven percent of domestic grant dollars to causes in rural areas, despite the fact that these dollars have a significant impact in those areas in particular. Given these constraints, abolishing the NEH would make access to our cultural resources less equitable, rather than give everyone a fair shot at accessing local programs in literature, history, and the arts.

  3. The NEH brings humanities to the forefront by supporting a critical academic infrastructure, encouraging scholars to focus on contemporary issues, and raising awareness among average Americans. Because the humanities’ benefits are less immediately quantifiable, but no less important, than healthcare, the environment, or social projects, private funders do not always flock to fund them. But the NEH supports innovative programs to encourage partnerships among academic and public humanities sectors. Through initiatives like the Common Good, the Mellon Foundation joined NEH in developing the Humanities Open Book program, supporting academic presses in digitizing, and making free, previously published books that enhance public knowledge of topics including American philosophy, Hawaiian and Pacific languages, and the history of Appalachian folk life.

  4. We need an impartial national assessor. NEH is uniquely charged with ensuring the humanities’ strength and progress at the national level — across all fields, subjects and types of humanities organizations. Initiatives of national scope and significance require a national agency with the capacity and interest to see and serve the country as a whole. NEH is uniquely suited to provide country-wide assessments on the state of the humanities, and prompt innovation within the field. For instance, when Congress sought to call attention to the struggles of veterans returning from war, the NEH established its Standing Together initiative, engaging veterans to share and reflect on their experiences with each other and with the country at large, prompting new thinking and research on the impact of conflict and wars.

The study of great ideas, culture, and religion is integral to our understanding of the world and what it means to be a citizen in a democratic society. Each of us has a responsibility to support the humanities in the service of this good. Certainly this is true when it comes to private foundations that are able to allocate considerable amounts of money to supporting such initiatives. But we are no replacement for the important and equitable role of the National Endowment for the Humanities, an institution critical to American culture and democracy, and one that promotes this cause through its reach in every state, territory, and constituency.

This public-private partnership has benefited the nation for half a century. We are now in a position, at least for the moment, to continue.