At The Grants Collective, we’ve seen a lot of grants get submitted with sweaty palms and jittery fingers, and we’ve been known to pop the bubbly over some particularly cantankerous submissions. Inevitably, we’re asked, What happens next?
We’ve volunteered for and worked as grant reviewers for community foundations, state programs, and federal agencies, so we can give you a view from the other side.
By and large, the first gate your proposal will clear is administrative. Either a human or automated system screens your proposal to make sure it meets all of the technical requirements. Are you eligible? Is your proposal within page limits or do the last few need to be removed? Did you adhere to the formatting guidance (font size, line spacing, character counts, etc.)?
The next step is typically programmatic and a review of whether your proposal meets the intent of the RFP and of the funder. This is where peer review comes in, and these panels usually report to a program officer. We’d like to share the following tips from our experiences as peer reviewers when you’re writing your proposal to make sure you rise to the top of the stack:
- If they tell you how they’ll score grants, be sure to refine your proposal to address each rating factor.
- Use headers. This makes it easier to find the answers reviewers must specifically obtain. Use the same headers that are shown in the RFP, as well as any sub-headers.
- Be specific and make sure your proposal is easy to navigate by using bullets, white space, type formatting, tables of contents, and other methods to draw attention to important information.
- Avoid repetitive language but follow the cardinal rule of presentations; “1) tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em, 2) tell ’em, 3) tell ’em what you told ’em.”
- Address answers within appropriate sections, not elsewhere in the proposal without cross-referencing.
- Your English teacher got it right with the “three C’s.” Make your writing clear, concise, and cogent. Adjust the level of formality to the recipient organization – a community or family foundation is not a Federal service contract, and your writing style should reflect that difference.
- Add a fourth “C” — compelling. A little heart and a little flavor help set your proposal apart.
- Be specific when addressing “how.” Use details. Examples are good. This helps grant reviewers justify their scores.
- Make sure all your numbers match, whether budget dollars, scope of work, or past performance.
- Attach all like items in a single file. For example, don’t attach 10 resumes in varying formats and file names. Format them all the same, print them to PDF, and attach them as a single file. It’s just easier on the reviewer.
After the panel review, recommendations for funding are brought from the program officer to the powers that be — usually a board of directors, foundation trustees, agency secretaries, or senior executives. Sometimes the program officer has the authority to make funding decisions within a certain dollar amount, but oftentimes needs to present your proposal for funding. Making their job easier is your job in writing the proposal. And, when funding decisions are almost final, they typically go through financial or legal counsel review to ensure IRS compliance.
Once a grant decision is made, that is typically conveyed to the person listed as the organization contact in your proposal. Sometimes this might go to the financial designee, your fiscal sponsor, or the executive director (and sometimes even a board member). Make sure your grant team knows what notifications to look out for, and to forward decisions — positive or negative — to you for your records.
P.S. We’ve heard the saying that the three most important things in real estate are “location, location, and location.” We’re tempted to say that the three most important things in grant writing are “directions, directions, and directions – follow them.” While a bit reductionist, doggedly paying attention to directions while avoiding the pitfalls above will set your proposal head and shoulders above the competing requests.
Most nonprofits struggle with getting grants and they’re tired of chasing money. It shouldn’t be this hard. So we created a process that helps them find funding, get grants, and connect to a network. This gives their organizations the money they need to make our communities strong.