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CPR for Grantwriters: Reviving Unfunded Applications

By Christopher Haight
September 2011

Grant funding, like any other competition, inevitably results in winners and losers - and unfortunately, the latter tend to outnumber the former. Take for instance, the Investing in Innovation program available from the U.S. Department of Education. This year's competition brought out over 500 applicants for just under $150 million in total funding. It is likely fewer than 30 of these applications will receive funding - making it just as unlikely to receive grant funding as it is to get into Harvard.

The competitiveness of grant programs can vary greatly. Grants can be targeted specifically to certain organizations through formula grants, by which pre-determined recipients are allotted amounts through a specific quantitative measure (population numbers, demographics, security threat, etc.). A prime example of this kind of grant is the State Homeland Security Grant Program, through which each state is allotted a certain amount of money. Applications under these kinds of programs are more a formality to ensure accountability and proper management of funds, rather than to competitively review worthiness of projects.

In contrast, programs like the Investing in Innovation program can attract far more applicants than it could ever reasonably fund. Hearing odds like the ones described previously may discourage some organizations from even submitting an application - especially ones that can be demanding in terms of proposal requirements. It is just as common to hear previously unfunded applicants give up on applying at all to the largest programs, for fear their efforts will be in vain.
However, before tearing up a previously rejected proposal, it is worth considering what you can do to revive a seemingly dead application:

C: Consider the Reviews
The first thing you should absolutely do is take time with your project team and grant writer(s) to review the application and how it was scored. Often times, especially for federal programs, you can receive reviewer feedback and actually view comments on the application as a whole or its individual parts. The U.S. Department of Education provided this level of transparency possible on the largest scale, making publicly available individual reviewers' scores and comments from its $4 billion Race to the Top program funded under the Recovery Act.
While critical feedback is never particularly pleasant, it can be valuable and informative for reapplying next year. When considering the reviews, take into account the following aspects:

  • Where did you lose the most points on the application? This is likely the most intuitive thing to do, as it will tell you what parts contributed most to your losing out on funding.
  • Can you gain points through your own efforts, or are they outside your immediate control? For some parts of the application, it may be you did not include enough detail,did not explain something well enough, or failed to include supportive data or evidence. These situations are usually an easy fix for future applications. However, you lose points for characteristics outside your control (for example, some applicants that serve a high number of impoverished individuals receive priority consideration), there is little you can do to alter your application and it may be better to focus efforts elsewhere. You may be able to refashion your projects to address priority populations, so long as you do not misrepresent the actual project details.
  • Are the scores consistent across reviewers? Reviewers, no matter how educated, trained, and well-intentioned are, alas, human. There will be times when one reviewer may give you a high score and another awards the polar opposite. For these sections of the application where large scoring discrepancies exist, the best you can do is consider the low scorer's feedback and make marginal improvements. Above all, make sure you hew as closely as possible to what questions the application asks of you. Keeping this laser-like focus will help ensure consistency and conformity
    with the official guidelines and diminish the risk of scorer discrepancy. Beware, however, that it does happen across many competitive grant programs.

P: Pursue Other Funding
Next, remember a written application is never a complete waste of time - even if it goes unfunded by program to which you first apply. You've already done a lot of the leg work. In fact, your application may be superb but competition was just too close (remember, the state of New Jersey's loss of a $400 million Race to the Top grant was largely attributed to a clerical error, not necessarily a problem with the project narrative or budget). In these instances, you should look to other grant programs and sources for which you can re-purpose your proposal. These alternative funding options could include looking to other grants offered by the same agency, other government sources, or community foundations. Recycling a project proposal allows you to maximize the potential payoff of the time and energy already expended on the original draft.

Remember, it usually isn't wise to just copy and paste entire proposals. Each grant program usually has specific demands of applications. You should always tailor each grant application to the specific funder and program. However, basic project descriptions and details can be fairly uniform so long as you are still seeking funding for the same initiative.

R: Rewrite!
Finally, be honest with yourself. If parts or the entire application needs it, rewrite and submit next year. A host of reasons can contribute to poor writing - it was your first time, you were unaccustomed to grant proposals of a certain size, the development period was hurried, etc. Rewriting should never occur in a vacuum, though. It is critical to bring in outsiders who can bring a new perspectives, such as grant consultants, project managers, writers, etc. These external perspectives will give a fresh set of your eyes to your project and application - and very often be able to point you in better directions for grants to pursue or how to write an application.

A valuable resource, in addition to review comments, can also be to look towards the applications that were funded. Some funders will make these publicly available. You may be able to use a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to access applications submitted to government programs or, consult with other grantseeking agencies that have proven successful.
There is, of course, nothing immediately positive about a rejection notice - but taking proactive steps to capitalize on the work and time you have already invested can direct you towards renewed opportunities for funding. Remember, you have to be in it to win it.