Because of a typographical error, the cost of repainting 30 desks in the public affairs office of the National Endowment for the Humanities was incorrect in yesterday's editions. The endowment spent $139 each for the desks, which were then painted white for an additional $40 each. The agency said this saved money, since government issued desks would have cost $600 each.

In the past year, the public profile of the National Endownment for the Humanities has changed from that of a staid, scholarly agency dispensing academic grants to one more typical of Washington - an ambitious, communications-conscious organization out to make new friends for its projects and goals.

Humanities, in the process, has gone social. There have been seven major parties, according to chairman Joseph E. Duffey, which have already had their intended effect on making the agency "more widely known." In all, more than 40 social events have been organized since he assumed office Oct. 18, from the breakfast meetings with the press to a lavish tent party on the Mall. Duffey's predecessor, Ronald Berman, held one large-scale party a year.

Humanities, like its sister Endowment for the Arts, has no congressional allotment for parties, however, so it has financed them another way: from private donations to a private money pool called the chairman's "discretionary fund."

Both endowments have received almost identical sums of discretionary contributions, about $16,000 each since the beginning of the current fiscal year on Oct. 1, 1977. At Humanities, they include the $50 donor who "cannot be easily identified from our records": a $75 speaking honorarium donated by staffer Len Oliver and $3,000 in honoraria from Duffey; and a $5,000gift from Phillip Morris Inc. At Arts, the range is from $5 contributed by one Dave Mariotto to $4,000 from New York's Babcock & Wilcox Co.

At Humanities, the fund has paid for $350 worth of specially inscribed coffee mugs, for elegant floral arrangements on dining tables and for a $5,000 tent party for $100 guests on the Mall. At Arts, a $2,494.15 dinner party for 60 at the Metropolitan Club in honour of chairman Livingston Biddle, as well as a $125 piano rental, came out of the private monies.

"Some of the things we've done have been a strange combination," Duffey says, "aspects highly economical and aspects quite extravagant."

The donation process at both endowments is informal, unregulated and apparently not uncommon at federal gencies. At Humanities, at least two contributions - from the Methodist Hospital in Houston and Philadelphia's University of Pennsylvannia Museum - have come from grantees.At Arts, the largest individual contributor, retired San Francisco stockbroker James D. Robertson (who has given more than $4,000) sits on the board of the San Francisco Opera, an endowment grantee. And $500 has come to the fund from the Association of College, University and Community Arts Administrators, another grantee.

By their nature, such funds are subject to almost automatic criticism from Capitol Hill.

"I think this whole thing of taking private monies into a government agency is bad," says Sen. William Proxmire, (D-Wis.) asked to comment this week. "I think it's a mistake. It's the worst possible way to do things. I think this money ought to come from the funds generated by the general taxpayers.That way there's no obligation to any special interest group."

The government itself has no way to monitor discretionary funds, although they are said to exist in many agencies.

"At the present time we have no way to look at these accounts," says Ralph Lotkin, a senior attorney at the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of the federal government. "There is legislation pending that would specifically give the comptroller general authority to review discretionary funds."

Duffey, asked if the fund presents a danger of unfair influence in favor of contributors, defended it, saying "I have never looked at the list of comtributors. I don't think anybody here has looked at it."

Biddle says "You always have to take the relationship into consideration. [Influence buying] would be the last thing in Robertson [a $4,000 contributor] would be interested in. His input into the procedure of grant making [as a member of the National Arts Council] is minimal. If there is any conflict of interest in a council meeting, the person withdraws."

Still both Duffey and Biddle are aware that the discretionary funds can present problems . . .

"Sometimes," says Biddle, "I just pays for things out of my pockets rather than use the fund."

"I'm uncomfortable with contributed funds," says Duffey. "And I'm uncomfortable with spending the taxpayer's money on parties."

As an example, Duffey refers to the $207 he has just paid the Humanities endowment out of his own pocket as reimbursement for work that eight summer interns were asked to do on government time in arranging a pool-side surprise party for the chairman's 46th birthday.

The surprise party was planned by Kay Elliot, the head of Duffey's newly expanded public affairs office, at the request of his wife, Anne Wexler, special assistant to the president.

Duffey characterized the incident as a "colossal mistake." In the aftermath of it five summer clerks and a public affairs consultant resigned, charging that they were the victims of reprisals by Elliot after she learned they had leaked news of the surprise party to the press. Recognition Factor

But Duffey contends that other parties the Humanities Endowment has organized have indeed boosted its public image.

"The fact is," he says, "that we have raised the visibility of the endowment. The mail into my office has increased tremendously. We've in an odd position because we can only give grants for programs that we receive applications on. Now we're getting more inquiries about project proposals, so I'd have to say that somehow these parties have had a positive effect on the endowment."

The arts endowment already had a high recognition factor under former chairman Nancy Hanks, and Livinston Biddle has not organized any large-scale entertainment.

He says he thinks more "in terms of making something pleasant but not elaborate."

One large party was given for Biddle himself when he was sworn in as chairman, and it was paid for by council members, as was Duffey's swearing - in - party.

But Humanities had a special problem to cope with when Duffey was appointed: President Carter had expressed concern about the agency's reputation as the exclusive preserve of the academic establishments and in March 1977 declared it must shed its "elitist image."

So Duffey expanded the public affairs office of the endowment, choosing Kay Elliot, a former Washington Star reporter, for her experience with the public affairs and the press. Her duties include being in charge of special events, the announcements of endowment activities and grants, and reorganizing information services. He placed her on his own staff, and added two assistants, four contract consultants and four college interns. There are now 30 desks in Elliot's office.

Under his predecessor the total public information staff numbered 13.

Agency social events were quickly stamped with Elliot's style: Duffey was able to call a press conference earlier this month to praise her cost-cutting efforts, and announce that Elliot "refused to buy government-issue desks at $400," and instead spent $139 each for 30 desks, had them painted a stylish white for $140 each, and accomplished an elegant and inexpensive renovation of her own staff's suite.

Elliot also wanted to install a kitchen in her 9th floor offices, which Duffey said was part of a plan to make new contracts for the agency by holding lunch conferences in Humanities suites. Government Services Administration turned down the plan, however, and a dishwasher and stove already delivered had to be returned. $5,000 Luncheon

The 40 social events organized by Elliot have ranged from small press lunches at which orchids floated in brandy sniffers filled with Perrier water, to the formal luncheon on the Mall during which a baroque band serenaded guests under a yellow-and-white striped tent.

That party,held May 12 to launch a weekend council meeting, provided for its 100 guests cole slaw tuna fish salad garni, cherry tomatoes and angel food cake. The bill for wine, aperitif and Perrier came to $411.

Invited were present and former members of the Arts and Humanities councils, governments officials, Humanities staff members and reporters. They took home special souvenir mugs and yellow tote bags emblazoned "Humanities: Civilization's study of itself." The menus, original silkscreens by Washington artist Lou Stovall at $12.96 each, cost more than the food.

The price tag was at least $5,000. "I think that's a high price for a luncheon," Duffey says now, adding that the sum had not been previously brought to his attention.

According to Duffey, the luncheon is "an annual" event given reciprocally by the endowment and its sister agency on the arts. Ronald Berman, Duffey's predecessor and now a teacher in California, denies that such events had been annual. Berman added that the only annual social event was the festivity surrounding the Jefferson lecture.

Joint meetings of the councils might have happened once or twice," Berman recalled by telephone."I remember one where we had to get together on the procedures for the challenge grants program. But it was just the members themselves and they always paid their way."

Some Humanities social events:

On Feb. 24 in the Capitol, under the aegis of Majority Whip John Brademas, an elegant luncheon using crystal and sterling silver for about 50 guests, capped with a speech by Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill. The five round tables were decorated with large white tulips baskets arranged with violets. A sherry hour preceded lunch in the office of the Whip. The repast was cold artichokes, marinated beef, zucchini and poached pears. Costs: $1,905.

On April 19 in Duffey's office, to brief Joan Mondale, chairperson of the newly-reactivated federal Council on the Arts and Humanities, with several figures from the academic community also on hand. About 30 persons attended. A caterer donated both her food and her services (valued by Elliot at $100), and there were $150 worth of flowers. The menu: mixed cold vegetables, cold pork and fresh fruit.

A purchase order for $1,452 was issued to Ridgewell's Caterers "to cover the cost of the Mondale luncheon" on May 17 but was later cancelled, according to John Whitelaw, Humanities deputy for management."It was lazy clerical work - $41.60 for a waiter and the rest supposedly to make up for bills not related to the luncheon they [Ridgewell's] hadn't been paid for. We found out later they had been paid."

On May 3 at the Library of Congress, a reception following the endowment's Jefferson lecture.The Jefferson lecture traditionally featured a large cocktail party and a black tie dinner. This year's version was less formal, and had 1.200 guests. It cost $15,000. The 1977 dinner for 300 cost $14,226.

Phoebe Franklin, a private consultant, was hired, at a cost of $8,000, to coordinate the event. She raised "in excess" of $25,000 for the discretionary fund; a traditional money-raising function of the Jefferson lectures. The Duffey Story

Duffey sees the function of the parties, large and small, to be primarily promotional. "I don't see my jobs here to be so much to change the endowment's image as to let people know that it's here. And one way to do that is to get the staff and other members of the government in contact with each other . . . When I arrived here ther was almost a feeling a secrecy. It wouldn't have taken very many parties by us this year to out do all the parties of my predecessor."

The Humanities Endowment exists primarily to disseminate federal money - more than $120 million this year - for the advancement of the humanities in America.Because of the year - long cycle under which allocations are made, the new chairman's administration of grant money has yet to be felt.

As a government agency, however, the endowment has already changed. There are now 30 all-white desks in the public affairs department, and a new flash in the agency's department. Duffey has debated the so - called eltiest camp publicly, at Yale, and yet his public affairs office trumpeted just as loudly when Humanities dispatched an expedition to "rescue" an American Indian language spoken by only a handful of Northernwestern tribesman.

The new, higher profile has cost skin off his nose: Embarassment at having to reimburse his own agency for his own surprise party; persistent reports that Humanities staff members are distrustful of his new administrative team; and the bitterness that surrounded the resignation of Elliot's summer clerks and the consultant.

Duffey has been asked several times publicly if Elliot would resign. He responds with a defense that seems also his analysis of some of the events in the endowment during his first year:

"It's a story of a very creative and highly-powered individual [Elliots] who has taken on a very difficult job in a government bureaucracy and has some accomplishments to show. It's also the story of the emotions, the antagonisms and pressures that are involved in two efforts - one, to better manage the agency and to make it more accountable, and two, to make it more widely known."