Government Grants: Who is your biggest advocate?
After the “submit” button is clicked on a government grant, the real fun for everyone involved in reviewing your proposal begins. Any government grant will likely be critiqued by more than one reviewer. This occurs according to an established proposal review manner, based on required granting guidelines.
Further detail about what actually happens in proposal reviews sometimes seems like a mystery. With federal proposals, however, the review and scoring actually happens in a somewhat predicable process. Sometimes called a “peer review process” or a “panel review” process, this is where the actual scores for most government grant are determined. A “high” score and a winning score are two different things, but that is another topic entirely.
According to information available on grant.gov, most US government proposals that fall into a “discretionary” grant category will be scored in this peer review panels. These panels consist of experts in the field and non-federally employed government grants experts. The panelist's job is to read each proposal the federal agency asks them to, and assign a confidential score to the proposal, based on how well it meets the criteria surrounding the original legislative intent of the funds being administered.
Learning more about this process enables better grant writing- which is why I became grant review panelist. I started in 2001, volunteering to review United Way grant proposals, and now review proposals for several federal agencies. Through this process, I learned the extent to which a panelist can easily understand and identify with a proposal either enables or disables high scores. I learned that if I can’t build a case for why a proposal meets the mandatory grant guidelines, it will never receive a high score in panel reviews. Knowing this changed the way I thought about grant writing. If there were only one sentence of advice I could offer regarding federal grant preparation, it would be the following: Write it so that a stranger to the organization can read it, understand what is being proposed, and fight for your cause against any adversity.
It sounds drastic — “adversity”. But if your proposed work meets the granting guidelines and the panelists understands and can prove that, your proposal will receive a high score. If anyone can prove the proposal doesn’t meet the required criteria, even a panelist who has fallen in love with an applicant’s causes and mission will not be able to advocate for the proposal receiving a high score. To this end, a grant writer preparing a federal proposal should prepare it specifically for the panel to read, and make it easy for panelists to identify how the proposed work addresses the criteria of the grant. The panel room is where your score is decided, and the only person in that panel room advocating for a proposal are the specific panelists who are assigned to review your work.
While many proposals show great passion for the work they are proposing, federal grant reviewers are often frustrated by the proposals that have not taken the steps needed to accurately link this work to the needed criteria. This literally prevents review panelists from justifying recommending a high score.
Panel discussions are where proposal scores are ultimately decided, and where billions of dollars are up for scoring every year. People who serve as panelists are there to learn about the ways your proposal meets (or does not meet) the required granting guidelines, and prove the strengths of your proposal to other panelists.
Enabling a panel member to see the ways a grant matches the federal criteria required by the grant application guidelines allows a panel members to advocate a proposal in panel discussions. This means it is the best interest of the grant writer to make it as easy as humanly possible for grant reviewers to find the criteria they need to fight for your proposal during panel discussions.
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