Key Takeaways

  • Keen attention to detail and understanding the difference between “mandatory” and “permissive” language boost your likelihood of winning a grant award.

  • Your application can fail if you don’t comply with application requirements.

  • Write your grant application in such a way that a total stranger can defend it in your absence.

Have you ever wondered how grant application requests are selected for award? Do you imagine it’s a little like “The Wizard of Oz” - with a wizard who stands in judgement, hidden behind a curtain, capriciously, if meanly, deciding who receives what they requested and who doesn’t? Well, I’ve been a grant writer and have served as a contracted external reviewer for several federal agency and private foundation grant programs for over two decades. While perhaps no process is perfect, my observation is that the objective review process at least attempts to be a fair, equitable, and somewhat transparent process.

What is a Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) and how does it work within the granting writing process?

Transparency starts with the publication of the Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) which often states the total funding allocated for the grant program, the total number of expected grantees, and the average dollar amount of grant awards. This is valuable information that alerts you to the competitiveness of the opportunity. The NOFO will also provide instructions and guidance on how to prepare an application response. Often the grant funding agency will provide opportunities for potential clarifying questions from applicants during grant application Technical Assistance (TA) webinars and/or a “Question and Answer” period.

NOFOs also tend to include information about how grant applications will be evaluated or scored – many times including not just a list of review criteria but details about “weighted” scores.

What happens after you've submitted your grant application?

After you’ve submitted your application, what happens next? For most grant competitions, they are subjected to an objective review process before the funder makes the final determination on grants selected for award. Many, if not most, times, the review process involves “external” reviewers – this means that the people reading and evaluating your application are not staff members internal to the agency or funding organization.

What happens during the external or objective review after a grant application has been submitted?

While the structure of a grant review process may differ among private foundation and governmental agency grant funding programs, the fundamental purpose driving the processes is the same. The purpose of an “objective” grant review is to provide a fair and equitable grant application evaluation process without bias to ensure that applicants selected for funding offer the greatest potential for advancing the grant program’s mission, goals and objectives.

This objectivity is achieved by:

  1. Establishing criteria by which each application is to be evaluated;
  2. Recruiting and assembling a panel of expert reviewers with expertise in the grant program under review;
  3. Holding reviewers to strict Conflict-of-Interest (COI) and confidentiality standards; and,
  4. Instructing reviewers to evaluate and score each application according to the Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) evaluation criteria.

To ensure a thorough and comprehensive review, each application is assigned to more than one reviewer to read and evaluate/score, and sometimes to participate in full panel discussions, before submitting those scores and evaluations to the funding agency.

How do private foundation and governmental agency grant funding programs maintain the integrity of the review process?

To maintain the integrity of the objective review process, reviewers are prohibited from bringing outside knowledge and/or information about applicant organizations, and reviewers are held to assessing applications solely on the content of information and documents contained within a complete application submission.

Note: In the event that an applicant organization failed to include required application attachments, the application would be considered incomplete and risk either elimination  from review or low overall evaluation score due to the missing information. Also, in this type of review process, as compared with some foundations, at no time may reviewers or agency staff contact applicant organizations with clarifying questions about the grant application – the only information reviewers have to score is what’s contained in the proposal. So, if for example, there’s an inconsistency  in your proposal’s indication of Full-Time-Equivalency (FTE) for your program director – cited in the project narrative as 0.50FTE, 0.35FTE in the staffing plan attachment and in your budget narrative as 0.30FTE – no reviewer can pick up the phone to call and ask which number is correct.

One of the first “take-aways” in my first review process was this:

You must write your grant application in such a way that a total stranger can defend it in your absence - because you are not "in the room.”

Two keys to success when writing competitive grants

The two keys to grant writing success are:

  1. 100% compliance with application requirements and,
  2. Responsiveness to review criteria. Compliance with application requirements requires keen attention to detail throughout, including attention to:
  • Formatting instructions (font size, font type, margin size, organization of project narrative content);
  • Budgeting specifications (i.e., observing indirect cost limitations and/or allowable costs versus unallowable costs);
  • Specifications regarding demonstration of strategic or collaborative partner support – e.g., understanding when letters of support versus letters of commitment are required;
  • Failure to include required attachments (i.e., logic model, workplan and timeline, copy of consultant agreement); and,
  • The difference between “mandatory” and “permissive” language.

What's the difference between compliance and mandatory versus permissive language?

In the instructions for the project narrative, a funder may request that you “discuss challenges likely to be encountered in designing and implementing the activities described in the work plan and their resolutions.” And sometimes the NOFO may go a bit further and direct you to “please include the following” followed by a list of specific challenges the funder is aware could serve as barriers to success. “Discuss” and “Please include” are “mandatory” directives, not suggestions.

Consider, for example, that in a workforce training grant the NOFO listed the following as a potential barrier to success – “describe challenges related to the workforce development, such as recruitment and retention and education and training of students in high need and high demand areas.”  If an applicant organization’s proposal fails to address the NOFO identified barrier as a requirement, the applicant organization does not demonstrate readiness in the consideration of a very real potential barrier to project success. Further, reviewers and the funder may perceive that an applicant organization that perceives no potential barrier to success, and is not prepared with potential mitigation solutions, will likely be at risk for the successful and/or on-time completion of the project with the desired or projected outcomes.

By contrast, as an example of “permissive” language, consider the same NOFO requires as an attachment a copy of a student commitment letter template. The NOFO lists content which must be included in the commitment letter and states the letter may also ask students for a plan to voluntarily pursue employment working with persons in high need and high demand areas. The “may” is permissive and this provision is not a requirement.

Responsiveness to review criteria includes paying close attention to the relative weight of the review criteria. For example, what if in a particular grant competition of the five published review criteria, the “Approach” (or description of how a program would be implemented) carries the heaviest points with a possible 35 points out of a total maximum score of 100 points and other criterion, ranged from just 10 to 20 points. In this scenario, an applicant organization that spent an exorbitant amount of effort, and pages, on the narrative in discussing their “Organizational Capabilities” (worth only 20 points) but by contrast provided a very limited description of their program approach and did not include a detailed workplan may have sacrificed the weightiest criteria and ended up with a relatively low overall score.

Paying attention to the two keys to success, adherence to requirements, and responsiveness to review criteria will help to enhance the likelihood of your grant proposal receiving favorable review scores and recommendations for funding.

This project was supported, in part by grant number 90CSSG0048  and 90FPSG0051 from the U.S. Administration for Community Living, Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C. 20201. Grantees undertaking projects under government sponsorship are encouraged to express freely their findings and conclusions. Points of view or opinions do not, therefore, necessarily represent official Administration for Community Living policy.