Mason receives Mellon Foundation grant to expand financial resilience in humanities research

by Anne Reynolds

Mason receives Mellon Foundation grant to expand financial resilience in humanities research

George Mason University’s Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (RRCHNM) is built on innovation. Its mission is to bring history to life: supporting new methods of research, welcoming new voices to narrate our shared experience, and presenting these narratives to new audiences. Now, they are innovating the ways that humanities research can be supported.

In September, the university received a $1 million grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support new business model development through change-capital funding. RRCHNM director Mills Kelly says that with the Foundation’s generous support the center can be less reliant on grant funding, instead finding new sources of funding by reaching and growing an audience in new ways.

Kelly stressed that the work that will happen with this grant rests on a solid team and has been in process for over a year. In 2020, RRCHNM launched a popular podcast, Consolation Prize, which explores the history of the United States from the standpoint of its consuls, lower-level diplomats whose on-the-ground work has shaped the United States’ reputation in the world. Bolstered by the success of Consolation Prize, the center responded to a call for participants from the Nonprofit Finance Fund (NFF) to engage in a Mellon-funded program designed to think critically about financial resilience in the digital humanities.

Logo for Consolation Prize podcast, featuring an image of a historic ship

Through the open call, NFF established a cohort of six organizations that it worked with, over the course of a year, to develop their own proposals for establishing resilient funding platforms. This diverse group of digital humanities organizations will each pursue a different approach to financial resilience and the members of the cohort will continue to meet and share their results over the coming years.

The consultants from the Nonprofit Finance Fund “were really critical to helping us,” said Kelly. “They're kind of the gold standard of this kind of work.” NFF helped the center put together a five-year model of what Mellon termed change capital. “The Foundation is giving us the financial space we need while we go through a business model change, so that we can try something new and different without worrying that we won’t be able to continue to fund our staff.”

Through this program, the center devised a collaborative approach: first, to augment its capacity for producing content, in the form of podcasts and videos, in order to grow and diversify its audience. The center then plans to convert that audience into a community of supporters, based on research that indicates that consumers of free content like podcasts are willing to support that content through voluntary memberships and recurring donations. According to the center’s proposal to the Foundation: “the two-pronged approach we are proposing will allow us to further our mission of democratizing access to historical information while also building the financial resiliency that will allow us to keep providing the best historical scholarship to the widest possible audience for free.”

The Mellon Foundation’s grant has allowed the center to establish R2 Studios, which will develop and produce deeply researched content created by historians “to stretch our understanding, open up new perspectives, and provide context for complicated historical issues.” The studio is named after RRCHMN’s founder, Roy Rosenzweig, and reflects his drive to use new media to democratize access to history. As part of the initiative, the center also plans to expand its social media and fundraising efforts surrounding the studio and its productions, as well as welcome other content producers as collaborators.

Logo for the Green Tunnel podcast, a white path through green trees

“That studio concept is going to be a way for others to pitch shows to us that can then also exist on our platform. We can help them realize their vision,” said Kelly.

The funding for the project is designed to continue for four years, with the goal of the center being financially self-sufficient in the fifth year, supporting the open-source content that RRCHNM has traditionally made available since its founding. And though the medium may be new, Kelly notes that it fits perfectly into the classic mission of the center.

“The Center for History and New Media has always been a platform for multiple voices.”