We are also working on an NEH grant at the moment. It is a production grant proposal after having received a $75,000 development grant for this project the year before last, which we spent last year. I agree with Colin about talking with your program officer. Ours was able to tell us that we were missing a type of adviser. In our case, we did not have an generalist, an American Studies concentrator. Moreover, his areas of expertise, including his perspective on Cold War culture, really added complexity to our thinking (in a good way), and the fact that he'd also writes about Jews in America gave us someone who could successfully guide us on that content as well.
I think you should be able to articulate academically what each adviser has brought/is bringing to the team. We try to incorporate at least one quote from each in our proposal narrative. We also give our advisers time to read and respond to our proposal draft. We ask our advisers to act as if they were actually panelists and give them the same questions that are asked during the real evaluation. ( http://www.neh.gov/grants/guidelines/AmMediaMakers_production.html#... ) The key point here is that we have them focus on our proposal's weaknesses. Naturally we want to hear what is working well so that we don't unintentionally mess with those things. We also send that same draft to our program officer so that when we get back to the advisers to discuss their respective comments, we can figure out how to incorporate/address the program officer's suggestions, too.
I was an NEH panelist awhile back, and I learned a lot from the experience, especially about the dynamic of the situation. The filmmaker(s) in the room have to answer the very same questions as the academics, including those about the project's intellectual rigor and whether the academic advisers have the right credentials for the project under review. The whole thing is being recorded, and program officers may be dropping in to listen to the discussion on various projects. It is rather stressful as well as interesting. So if you think about that, given that most of us filmmakers are not academics, the writing style and content of our NEH proposals should be digestible to smart lay people in a manner that helps them appreciate and articulate the intellectual rigor of the humanities content and the merits of the academic advisers. I noticed that when the panel moved to the production stuff, most academics didn't know how to evaluate the budgets and production work flows. I recommend that you make the production details simple enough so it seems logical to them, but detailed enough so that the filmmakers will be happy. Unfortunately, some filmmakers get extremely critical here, in part, I think, unfortunately because they also want their fellow panelists, the academics, to be impressed with their knowledge having been out of their depth in debating things like whether a social historian who's on topic but his/her credentials are not strong is the right person on the panel, or if the literature professor's approach to the material is no longer in academic favor. Don't give the filmmaker any ammunition to pick at your production plans when they get a chance to be comparably critical.
There were only 2 of about 20 proposals that all of us panelists scored as "Excellent" during the first evaluation. When we came together as panelists to discuss the projects, I think only one of those projects still had all Excellent's across the board. One of the things that that project's team did was to not ignore areas that they knew were weaknesses, but acknowledged them and stated when and how they would address them. That proposal was comprehensive. Plus everything, each word, every paragraph worked to steadily build a tight, non-repetitive, easy-to-read, enjoyable case for why the project needed to be funded immediately.
Thank you Tracy for sharing your great insight into this process. The advice about the advisers was something I was not aware of. This information will greatly help as I prepare to submit another proposal for consideration in February.
I will keep everyone posted. I encourage others to share their best practices for writing proposals for the' behemoth' organizations. Keep them coming.
Thanks for posting this question. I am considering applying.
I realize that I may be far behind already and need to start contacting my program officer immediately. It's educational to hear about the experience of a juror. These are great insights.