Grant Proposals: One Reviewer’s Ideas On How to Get the Reviewer’s Attention (And the Money)
Many government agencies award grants to organizations to provide services, do research, and demonstrate programs. In some cases, government officials study grant proposals (written requests for money) and decide which will receive funding.
Sometimes, informed outside knowledge is also utilized. In these cases, the government agency assembles a panel of experts to study the proposals and judge which are the best. Afterwards, the agency uses the panel’s evaluation in making a final decision.
In this article, I will describe my experience on such a panel. In order to preserve confidentiality, I will not state where I worked, nor reveal the specifics of any proposal. All names and descriptive information will be fictitious. Because it typifies much about the grant review process, my experience can help people who want grants. By knowing how proposals are reviewed, grant seekers can write their requests for funding better
I first met my fellow panelists in a conference room at the agency sponsoring the grant. Many of the 20 panelists seemed to already know each other. They had reviewed grants together before. Some people were former employees of the agency.
After introducing ourselves, the meeting commenced with an official of the agency explaining the review process.
First, we panelists would read the grants by ourselves at home. We would score them according to a checklist, and write down our impressions of their quality. Then we would determine whether or not they deserve funding from the government. Finally, we would meet in groups to reach agreement on the quality of each grant.
"Your decisions are advisory,"the official stated. We are not bound by them. This is because we may have some information you don’t have. But if we do overrule you, we must put in writing why we did so."
He warned us to keep our deliberations confidential. "It is extremely important not to discuss these proposals with your acquaintances," he stressed. "If you say to someone else, "Boy, that application from such and such a program was a real turkey, word will get back to that program. Believe me, it happens.
"Then the director calls us and says, ‘How come you got so and so to review my application! I happen to know he hates me personally and his agency has been fighting with us." This kind of thing compromises the whole process."
According to the official, people who submit proposals can get copies of the panel’s evaluations under the Freedom of Information Act. Our names will be struck out, but a listing of the names of the entire panel is available.
Advice on How to Do The Job
"Be professional in your review," he continued, and specific in your comments. Don’t write simply ‘This is a joke.’ No matter how the proposals may seem to you, people have worked hard on them. So respect that."
We were warned against conflict of interest. We were not supposed to review grants if they involved our relatives or organizations in which we had a financial interest.
"Now, if you know the grant seeker, it does not necessarily mean a conflict of interest," the official explained. "Many of us know some of these people. But if you’ve published with them consistently for two years, then you don’t want to review their grant.
"There’s also apparent conflict of interest. For example, I worked for Kalamazoo County 20 years ago. Now, I won’t touch any grant proposal from Kalamazoo County. I won’t read it, I won’t sign off on it, I won’t comment on it. You see, there would always be a question: Did I lean a bit towards them because I worked there: Or did I bend over backwards not to lean towards them?
"So my point is, if you feel the slightest bit uncomfortable reviewing a grant, please see me, and I’ll trade you that one for another."
After this, I received my box of grant proposals. It was huge! It was four feet long and I could hardly lift it! It was jam-packed with paper, in bright books, with rubber bands, paperclips, manila envelopes, and various types of dividing paper. In 48 hours, I was to read 18 proposals and then return to the conference room for group discussion.
Reading the Proposals
How I got the box from downtown to my home would be a story in itself. When I finally arrived, I again studied the stacks of notebooks and paper. I had been given many forms entitled "External Review and Quality Ranking Checklist." I was to read each grant and fill out a form for each of them.
Fortunately, the first half of the form was simple. Name and address of the applicant, title of the project, my name and address. On the next page, I drafted an abstract of those proposals for which I was primary reader.
This was followed by five pages of questions about the proposal. I had to answer each one "Yes", "No", or "CND" which means "Cannot Determine."
The questions covered the following topics:
—Can the applicant legally receive funding;
—The plan to assist people, who they are, and how they will be selected;
—The qualifications of the staff, their ability to do the activities specified in the proposal, and how they will evaluate the project;
—The need for the project;
—The written materials the organization plans to use;
—whether too much or too little time is devoted to each step of the project;
—whether too much or too little money is requested
Not only did I answer these questions, but I had to list weaknesses of each funding request. All of my comments had to be backed up by reference to page numbers of the proposal.
After I read a proposal, I ranked it on a scale of 1 (seriously inadequate) to 7 (excellent). Then I decided whether to recommend that it be "approved" or "disapproved" for funding.
The task was good practice for reading comprehension tests. Not only must you read and remember, but you must make decisions on what you read. You have to study each part of the grant, and then integrate them in your mind to decide on their merits. Slowly, as I read, the mass of papers became live people and real programs.
What influenced me as I read?
Although I tried not to pay attention to the appearance, they made an impression. I preferred proposals that had large margins and lots of white space. Could I read the type easily? Was the paper heavy and the xeroxing centered?
A few grantees won my heart by having copies of the evaluation form in the beginning of the proposal and writing in the page numbers containing the relevant information.
I reminded myself over and over again to judge the program, not the proposal! But with the amount of work to do, in the time available, I could not help being angry when I had trouble reading a proposal.
Clear writing and well-organized content were important. Could I understand what the grant seeker was talking about? Was it easy to find the information or was it buried under mounds of verbiage?
For example, I had to find out how people were selected for assistance. Then I had to make a judgement on the selection scheme. Obviously, when the selection process was clearly noted, I did not have to extract information. No matter how good the ideas, if I couldn’t find them in the grant, I had to take points off.
Many people believe that grant reviewers weigh proposals and then fund the heaviest ones. This is untrue. However, the more detail included in the proposal, the more likely it is to have what the grant reviewer needs to locate. So in general, larger ones received higher ratings.
After I read and filled out the form, I had to decide if the project was worthwhile. Was it unique? Was it worth the cost to the government? Sometimes, I reread parts of the proposal. I studied staff and budget sections very carefully, if the project appeared to have a good reputation, it was more likely to earn my approval.
I disliked one proposal that would use money to train private high school students. As I read between the lines, I could not help but think they were trying to use federal money for what should be paid by tuition.
Another project, which I will call the TACOMA project, impressed me. It’s purpose was to train culturally deprived teachers how to help children with disabilities. Since most of the schools were in inaccessible areas, educational television would be used extensively.
The grant did not require a lot of money. It only requested two staff members. Overhead (which is a percentage of each grant that pays for utilities, office supplies, and any other costs which are not budgeted) was low.
Unfortunately, the proposal did not answer many of the questions on my form. It was not well written and lacked much required information. I felt strongly that the major problem was the lack of a good grant writer.
I chose to approve it.
I read and read. Some grants seemed excellent. Others were poor. It took self-discipline to concentrate on the proposal, rather than read the brochures and books often included in the appendices.
Finally I finished. I dragged four feet of grant proposals back to the conference room, prepared for group discussion.
The panel of 20 people divided into three groups. Each met separately to evaluate 18 grants assigned to the members of that group.
With each proposal, everyone first stated how they ranked it. Then, each group member designated as "primary reader" for that proposal summarized the facts and explained his or her ranking. Each aspect of the proposal was discussed by the group, with one member serving as recorder.
A government official from the granting agency attended this meeting to see that the review proceeded fairly and to answer questions about agency regulations. The official was not permitted to vote or state any opinions about the proposals.
In some instances, we agreed quickly. One proposal received the highest ranking possible from all of us. It included everything required and was well-written.
When it came to the TACOMA project, however, I was alone in supporting it. Although it was obvious to me that the area needed the grant money, the need was not documented in the proposal. Also, there was no explanation how the people who would receive services would be chosen.
Few letters of support accompanied the proposal, and some important information was missing all together. Questions from my fellow panelists made it obvious that I was unable to substantiate my feelings with facts.
Ultimately, I was persuaded to disapprove it. I felt badly, because I had caught a glimpse of a small program in a poor area that could use the money well. But as a grant reviewer, I had to be objective. Facts on the papers in front of me were important. My personal feelings and what I thought the grant implied were not supported by the grant proposal.
We kept each other objective. All of us were affected by our value judgements, but be canceled out each other’s bias. For example, at one point, I looked at a proposal in which 25 percent of a staff person’s time would be spent chairing an organization and serving on various committees.
I felt that much of this was for personal development, and should not be funded by the grant. But members of the group convinced me how such participation would help the proposed project.
Group members bought a variety of perspectives to the deliberation. One person noticed that the staff members on one project were all part time, a fact which had escaped everyone else. Another reviewer was worried about a project director devoting only 20 percent of his time to supervising the project. One lady was an expert on goals and objectives, and informed us when objectives were not stated in measurable terms.
When we had a strong disagreement about a grant proposal, we talked about it and decided on one rating. Sometimes, we compromised. Other times, one person could change everyone’s minds.
One woman was especially effective at persuading the group. She studied each grant thoroughly. She backed every statement with facts. She knew how to challenge people and to ask skillful questions. On the other hand, when she was proven wrong, she gave in quickly.
Reviewing the proposals was exhausting. Each of us read for two days. Then for a full day and a half, we met in groups and discussed details. Finally it was over.
I left the grants review room and walked to my office where I knew a full inbox awaited me. I felt accomplished.
For four days, all of us had tried to be fair. We had put up with the complicated system of checklists and discussions. We also had overcome our feelings and professional biases.
We had made a tiny contribution toward good government, a small dab of oil in a huge machine, a light tap on a wheel that hundreds were pushing. But we had done our best to help spend the taxpayers’ money wisely.
If you’re working on a grant proposal, remember—be thorough, write well, and include all required information. Package it neatly and even with flair. Of course your project must fulfill a real need. If so, then your grant request has a good chance of winning high evaluations from proposal reviewers.
Dale S. Brown
Dale S. Brown has written five books that encourage people with disabilities to find jobs and live a high quality life. She is a well-known speaker in the disability arena and was recently in California twice, speaking to the National Employment Counselor’s Association and the Non-Verbal Learning Disabilities Association
Check out the Authors Latest Book! Job-Hunting for the So-Called Handicapped
Dale Susan Brown is co-author (with Dick Bolles) of Job-Hunting for the So-Called Handicapped. (Ten-Speed Press). She is a nationally-known expert on getting people with disabilities to work. She has written four other published books and hundreds of articles on the topic. She has won numerous awards for her advocacy, including the Ten Outstanding Young Americans Award given by the US Jaycees ...more
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