May 5, 2009

The View from the Other Side of the Desk

Advice on Grant Writing from the Reviewer’s Perspective

During my 12 years of writing grants, I have had the opportunity to sit on the occasional grant review committee for foundations and government agencies. Choosing which organizations to invest money in has provided an invaluable perspective when it comes to writing effective proposals.  Perhaps more importantly, I’ve learned ways to avoid irritating the people holding the purse strings.  In this article we’ll explore the grantmaking process so that you can make life easier for your reviewers.

To get a feel for their perspective, imagine the process…

Typically, you are a board member or a member of a group of volunteer reviewers from outside organizations. The adventure starts when you receive a stack of proposals that is probably taller than your phone book but shorter than a toddler. With a groan you lift the documents and move them somewhere more convenient — like a poorly lit corner of your office. (After all, you have a few weeks to work through them and your to-do list was already full.)

You sit back down at your desk, only to hear the sound of the stack sliding apart. You swivel around to find the grants spread across the floor as if a klutzy blackjack dealer had fanned the deck. Investigating, you discover the problem: slick folder covers. You tear off the covers and rearrange the stack.

Lesson 1: Don’t bind proposals unless requested.

The stack is left to “cure” for a few weeks before you realize that your grant committee meeting is next week. Time to dig in. You pick up the top grant and start reading. Hey, it isn’t so bad, the foundation even gave you a little score sheet to rate the proposals.


Lesson 2: If they tell you how they’ll evaluate grants, be sure to refine your proposal to address each rating characteristic.

You make it through a few grants that day and are having fun learning about all the great work organizations are doing. Unfortunately you realize that at this speed, you’ll never get through all of them. On Friday the “reviewed” stack is still depressingly shorter than the “to review” stack so you schlep them home for the weekend. That evening you grab a handful, pour yourself an iced tea, and kick back on the deck to read through them.

Despite the occasional rogue butterfly clip popping off the pages, you are getting pretty good at this. You get better at scanning for key information; skimming through the sections to score the grant, looking for the “return on investment” items like outcomes, and getting a feel for which organizations have solid work plans and which are fudging their way through it.

Lesson 3: 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.

You’re surprised at how many proposals make it difficult to figure out what the request is for. You begin muttering things like “come on, cut to the chase, what is this about?” when you wade through several pages before finding out how much is being requested, what the money will be used for, and why it matters. You become a fast fan of brief summary statements.


Lesson 4: 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.”

As your “reviewed” stack finally rises above the remaining grants, you come across another proposal where budget numbers in the narrative don’t match the attached budget. With dwindling sympathy for the applicants, you say to yourself “you can’t even match your numbers here and you want me to trust you with a wheelbarrow full of money!”

Lesson 5:  Make sure all your numbers match, whether dollars, scope of work, or past performance.

You are quickly becoming a lean, mean, reviewing machine. You’ve come up with a few tricks to speed up the process. The RFP required several attachments so you check those first. If it’s missing something you toss it aside without reading. You learned that one the hard way, by reading and rating a couple of grants only to find out you wasted your time on incomplete requests.

Lesson 6:  Include every piece of required information.

By Sunday you bristle at dense and overly formal writing. Your concentration isn’t what it used to be and you find it hard to follow long sentences – the lines simply start melting together. When bloated language using tiny type fills each page, you wonder whether you’re allowed to assign negative points to the proposal. On the bright side, you are providing a dinner commentary such as “I’d like to express a strong level of support for this dinnertime selection of consumables and your ongoing efforts to sustain the household collaborative – notably, an effective synergy has been developed between the peas and carrots.”

Lesson 7: 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.

With hundreds of pages of program descriptions, goals, outcomes, and capability statements under your belt, it’s a welcome relief to read a personal story, vignette, or quotation. Not only do you get a break, it really gives you an idea of why the program is important and reminds you of why you are on the review committee in the first place.

Lesson 8: Add a fourth “C” – clear, concise, cogent and compelling. A little heart and a little flavor help set your proposal apart.

These stories, and the clearly written proposals, stick in your mind as you bring your stack and rating sheets into the conference room. You and your peers once again sift through the proposals, quickly dismissing the lower rated requests then discussing the relative merits of the high scorers. As the day goes by you are heartened as the budget dwindles and the list of worthy funded projects grows. You leave feeling a bit like Santa Claus. Hey, you may even volunteer next year!

I’ll close with one thought: We’ve heard the saying that the three most important things in real estate are “location, location, and location.” I’m tempted to say that the three most important things in grant writing are “directions, directions, and directions – follow ’em.” 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.

Contact: Aly Sanchez, Director of Organizational Strategy and Learning,

This post was filed under: