From a Proposal Reviewer’s Perspective
I have been writing grants for more than fifteen years. During that time, I have secured more than $120 million in grant funds for my clients. While I was a very successful grant proposal for the first ten years of my writing career, my success rate began to increase dramatically about five years ago when I began professionally reviewing grant proposals for a variety of state and federal funding agencies. Some of the agencies for which I review grant proposals include the United States Department of Agriculture Rural Utilities Service, Department of Energy, Department of Education, Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Native Americans, and more.
Over the last five years I have reviewed well over one hundred grant proposals, nearly all of which were not considered for funding. In fact, I recently calculated that only about 3 percent of the grant proposals I have reviewed as part of a federal peer review team have scored high enough to be recommended for funding. Overall, depending on the funding program and the funding agency, only about 5 to 8 percent of grant proposals are awarded funding.
Through my own experiences and conversations with other reviewers, I have put together a list of some of the most common errors that peer reviewers encounter when scoring grant proposals.
Not following the directions outlined in the funding program guidelines
This is the number one mistake I see proposal writers make–even seasoned ones. In the most recent round of proposals my team reviewed, only one writer addressed every one of the review criteria outlined in the program guidelines.
In all of the others, one or more criterion was omitted with no reference to the missing information being made. For a reviewer, this is frustrating because there is no way of knowing if this information was left out because the question was not applicable or because the point was simply overlooked. Thus, when preparing a proposal if any of the criteria do not apply to your organization or situation, you should at the very least write ‘not applicable’ and include a brief explanation as to why this is the case. With the competition for grant funding fiercer than ever before, every point counts.
Using a template or boilerplate
Grant writers should never use a boiler plate proposal. Proposal requirements inevitably vary from one funding program to another. Some people mistakenly believe that if they create one 'perfect' proposal that covers everything, then they can use that to apply to nearly any funding program. This is just not the case.
Grant reviewers are typically required to participate in training sessions before they begin to review proposals. By going through this training, reviewers learn how to quickly identify and weed out proposals that are obviously using a template or a boiler plate.
Every funding program has its own unique priorities and areas of focus. During the review process reviewers score each section of the proposal based on how well it addresses a specific focus or priority outlined in the published Request For Proposals (RFP) or guidelines. A template or boiler plate will not be aligned the proposal requirements and when key information is not where it is expected to be, critical points are lost.
Failing to fully address sustainability
Grant funders can be compared somewhat to venture capitalists because in general their intent is to provide an influx of capital resources to achieve a specific set of goals and objectives—not to support an organization for the long-term. And much like venture capitalists, they don’t fund non-profit organizations or projects that have not developed and put in place long-term financial sustainability plans. In other words, funders are not inclined to fund projects that are likely to die out once the grant funds are expended.
The majority of grant proposals that I have reviewed do little more than address sustainability in passing. This is a big mistake. Building sustainability into your project plan from the start is critical to successful grant seeking. At the very minimum, you should try to include letters of support from their board and leadership as well as collaborative partners that detail their commitment to sustaining the project over the long-term.
Making assumptions about the reader’s knowledge of your organization, community or problem
When writing your proposal never assume that the reader has prior knowledge about your community or the problem you are trying to address. The people reviewing and scoring your proposal are often located in other parts of the country and may not be familiar with your area or your organization. Never expect the proposal readers to mentally fill in any missing information or gaps—if you do, it will cost you points.
Additionally, because reviewers change from year to year, unless you have a longstanding relationship with a funder, don’t depend on prior knowledge or past relationships when writing your proposals. When writing a new application, you should assume that the reviewer has no knowledge of your community, your organization, or the problems you are hoping to address with the support of grant funds. Be sure to provide a concise overview that includes key information, background and statistics where appropriate.
Building the budget from the top down
This is more of an issue with larger grant programs versus smaller ones. From the reviewers’ perspective, budgets that coincidentally total the exact amount of the maximum allowable request can appear padded. Such budgets can also make it look as though not a lot of thought has gone into developing the total needed funds.
So instead of starting at the award ceiling and working backwards until you reach zero, you should develop your project budget from the bottom-up—stopping when all expenses have been accounted for, even if you are below the award ceiling. This is important because developing the budget from the bottom-up infers that only necessary expenses have been included in the request. But regardless of the requested amount, be sure to justify all expenses in the budget and include calculations.
While this is certainly not a comprehensive list of every error that I have seen in my years as a professional grant reviewer, these are the most common ones that my teammates and I run across. Avoid these pitfalls and you can rest assured that you will be well on your way towards developing a winning grant proposal.
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