April 20, 2011

Lessons from the Other Side: My Experience as a Federal Grant Reviewer

From the end of February through early April, my job was to be a federal grant reviewer. I wanted to do a really, really, really good job at this for a few reasons.

First, because I adore philanthropy as a profession. Every so often I think, what would I do if I had money to give away? How would I do it? Would there be strings attached? How would I know if it’s being put to good use? Who are the good souls out there worthy of my money? How would I choose? Being a grant reviewer is as close as I can get to answering these questions. All of a sudden, I had access to a pot of money that, while not mine to give away, was mine to make recommendations on how to give it away. (As it turns out, I would pore over grant applications and financial statements. I would analyze, dissect, and re-analyze. I would make sure that where there are weaknesses, they are brought to light, and preferably by the applicant recognizing that they have some work to do – not by me playing ‘gotcha.’ I would look for past examples of responsible stewardship. I would compare job descriptions with resumes and weigh the role of the board and the expertise of the staff.)

Second, because I wanted to make it worth it. It = the leave from TGP. I adore TGP. It’s been my third child since before I had my second child. If I didn’t give the experience my all, I would have felt like I was letting TGP down. Already, I had to wrestle with knowing that people were doing my job in my absence, and not only that, but it could impact their abilities to do their own jobs most effectively. So by me doing my best at this other job, it made me feel like I could share the experience and knowledge gained with TGP to help make up for my absence.

Third, because I enjoy the satisfaction of a job well done. With any luck, this federal review job will lead to others across different agencies. This can be good news for New Mexico since I am committed to sharing what I learn, and TGP has the distinction of working with some of the most progressive, largest, coolest, and most fun organizations in the state. So, before I wrote this article, I applied for more federal review jobs.

Here’s what I learned.

Being a reviewer is work for many people. The others on the review team were largely independent consultants. There were about 100 of us. They split us into teams of 7 or so, and each team had a leader. My team leader was a staff member within the specific federal agency. His role was to look at all of the reviews I completed and let me know whether or not they passed muster, and then to submit all of our reviews to the federal agency.

I got my first two reviews kicked back to me by my team leader. In my defense, I had not yet received the orientation binder, although I had gone through the orientation. As it turns out, the binder has the RFP guidance and a sample ‘reviewer’s workbook’ so that an errant reviewer like myself has something to grasp onto. After receiving the binder, having a ‘calibration’ session with my team leader, and redoing my first two reviews, I was off and running.

Here’s an example from one of my first reviews and how it was corrected in the next go-round:

Question: Does the applicant provide [required services]? What is the likelihood that the services will make a significant impact in the circumstances of the target market?

My first answer said this:

Answer: (1) The applicant provides sufficient detail that through its management agreement with [its parent company] that the target market is provided with [required services]. The applicant provides an array of services but the impact on the target market is not addressed.

My second answer said this:

Answer, Take Two: (1) The applicant provides sufficient detail that through its management agreement with [its parent company], the target market is provided with [required services]. The services seem comprehensive and are provided both in person and online. Despite providing an array of [services], the impact on the target market is not effectively addressed. Providing additional information such as which types of [organizations] access the [services], the feedback from the target market in terms of which services have affected its [operations], and an example of how its [services] have positively affected [it] would have strengthened this section.

Notably, and my understanding is that this is different than from in years past, reviewers were specifically asked to start low and work their way up. The scale I was working on was a 1-4 scale, with 4 being the highest score an applicant could achieve in a sub-question (each question within the RFP was scored on a sub-scale, so reviewers’ scores could only be altered by responding to each of the scoring criteria sub-questions rather than the question at large). So rather than starting from ‘neutral’ and working my way up or down on the scale regarding each sub-question, and certainly a departure from how Michelle Pfieffer graded her students in Dangerous Minds as earning themselves away from an A, I had to essentially start at an F and see if applicants redeemed themselves. Most did. Since I was making recommendations as to whether an applicant be considered further, I felt like a teacher who had to decide if a student could advance to the next grade level.

Another major reviewer fundamental I learned was that the questions that reviewers answer are not yes/no – even if they are phrased like that. For example, one of the questions I had to answer was: “Does the Applicant offer an effective strategy for [XYZ]?’ If I answered that ‘As a matter of fact, yes, the Applicant seems to have an effective strategy,’ then that was not enough. Even for yes/no questions, reviewers are expected to be able to back up their yes/no answer with a how/why statement. A tip for all of us: use details and examples! It is so much easier for a reviewer to back up support of an application by saying that the applicant used compelling examples to illustrate how it does X, Y, and Z.

During my ‘get calibrated’ session with my team leader, he also said something to the effect that, ‘Sure, I answered the question but how did I feel about that?’ For example, an applicant’s financial situation may have worsened over the past few years and I would note that in my review of their financial statements. But how did I feel about that? Did the applicant justify it, and reasonably? In relation to grants, TGP often provides some guidance to program direction or impacts/outcomes, but for the most part, we interview our clients, listen, and distill what they say into a proposal. To review grants, I had to shift away from this bandwagon approach in order to determine whether I would recommend an applicant receive further consideration. And this is impactful for me not just professionally, but personally. When I did my interview for Leadership Albuquerque, one of the questions was ‘What’s my greatest strength?’ or something to that effect. My answer was that I believe in what I’m doing with all my heart. I think all of our clients are the greatest and their programs are phenomenal. Then, they ask, ‘What’s your greatest weakness?’ and my answer was the same thing – that I jump in and believe in something with all my heart, which isn’t always the best move. So you can see why this was a stretch for me as a grant reviewer.

Overall, I expected to learn a lot and I did. One of the things it did for me was solidify my confidence in TGP. We have a great team who are working with great clients, and in a bout of shameless self-promotion, I would say that every proposal we funnel out is more well-written than the majority of what I reviewed, and if not better-written then at least on par. There were some that were submitted with changes still tracked. One had notes to self highlighted in red. Some were obviously written by multiple people with varying levels of communication skills. Some read like they were written in a hurry. Some were riddled with misspellings. Does this make the score go down? It’s hard to say because if I could find information within the proposal to support the how/why of a reviewer question then I could use it (my direction was that I could use any information within the ‘four walls’ of the application; even if it was found in a different question, then it was fair game). However, I didn’t dig for information and I didn’t make inferences. This is where I think TGP has an excellent leg up on the proposals that I reviewed. Since we always have our proposals reviewed in light of the RFP by at least one set of separate eyes before they are submitted, at worst there might be a minor typo in the final copy. Not a completely missing section. Not poorly articulated thoughts. Not notes to self. Not bad grammar or spelling.

For grant writers out there, here are the writing tips:

  1. Be specific when addressing “how.” Use details, even if they seem like a given or are monotonous.
  2. Use headers. This makes it easier to find the answers reviewers must specifically obtain. Ideally, use the same headers that are shown in the RFP, as well as any sub-headers.
  3. Address answers within appropriate sections, not elsewhere in the proposal without cross-referencing.
  4. Examples are GOOD. I routinely used a statement such as, “The Applicant provided three compelling examples of how it has used its [new software/financial policies/etc] to deliver its services. These examples provide evidence that…”
  5. Attach all like items in a single file. For example, don’t attach 10 resumes in varying formats and file names. Print them all to PDF and attach them as a single file. It’s just easier on the reviewer.
  6. Brevity is appreciated, but not at the expense of details. If the space is there and you can fill it with details or examples, do so.

Finally, thank you to TGP and our clients for this opportunity! I feel like I got a lot out of it and it will translate into great things for New Mexico. You are welcome to email me with any questions.

Tara Gohr, President/CEO, tara@thegrantplantNM.com

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