From the Other Side: A Reviewer's Perspective
Wednesday, February 15, 2012
By Ron Flavin, Contributing Writer
Despite the persistently slow economy and ongoing budget cuts at every level, the U.S. Federal Government awarded nearly $600 billion in grants in 2011, which represents a 20% increase over the approximately $500 billion in grants awarded in 2009. On average, only about three to five percent of grant proposals submitted to the federal government are awarded funding. With more budget cuts on the horizon, the already tough competition for federal grant dollars is poised to become even more fierce. That means that now more than ever, only the 'best of the best' proposals will get funded. The loss of just a single scoring point can make the difference between success and failure. I regularly work as a peer reviewer for a number of federal funding agencies so I see firsthand what sets winning grant proposals apart from the others. I would like to share with you several common pitfalls that I frequently run across that ruin an otherwise solid proposal's chances of getting funded.
First and foremost, follow the proposal instructions. This seems obvious but I cannot tell you how many proposals I have reviewed where the applicant did not fully follow the instructions outlined in the program guidelines. Follow the instructions exactly and never omit information requested or leave out a required section outlined in the proposal guidelines. Even if it feels like you are being asked to provide information you have already discussed in an earlier section, include the requested information where it is requested. Never leave a section blank or fail to include a requested attachment. If the requirement is not applicable to your organization then let the reviewers know that this is the case. Otherwise, they may mistakenly believe that you overlooked it, which can negatively impact your score.
Second, do not include letters of support unless the person or organization providing the letter is willing to make some sort of tangible commitment toward the project's success. Letters of support are so easy to obtain that without a defined contribution to the project, they just don't have any meaning. Letters of commitment do not necessarily have to include 'substantial' contributions but they should be meaningful. In other words, the letter writer must commit something measurable such as time, effort or resources that will add value to the proposed project and support its success.
Next, never use a boiler plate proposal. The 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, which 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 RFP. 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.
Lastly, when developing your funding request do not automatically ask for the maximum allowable amount. Budgets that coincidentally total the exact amount of the maximum allowable request can appear to be 'padded' from the reviewer's perspective, meaning that the budget could be subject to a much higher degree of scrutiny than it might otherwise. If every last dollar of your request is not adequately justified, it could mean the loss of valuable points. In the highly competitive grant seeking process, losing just one point can make the difference between getting funded and not getting funded. Instead, you should build your budget from the bottom-up, stopping when all necessary expenses are accounted for, even if the amount is considerably less than the maximum allowable request.
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 I run across. Avoid these pitfalls and you will be well on your way towards developing a winning grant proposal.