Assessing grant proposals is one of the most exciting and challenging aspects of running a not-for-profit organization whose mission includes awarding grants. The challenges of writing great guidelines, operating efficiently and reviewing requests fairly require a focused vision of the goals of the organization. There are some basic questions that apply to the community of grant givers. How can we clearly articulate what we are looking for? How can we make fair decisions while considering significant differences in capacity and approach? How do we handle conflicts of interest, and our own personal biases? These are significant questions, and their answers impact our effectiveness as grant-givers.
So how does the assessment process begin? It begins with concise and clear guidelines of the type or types of proposals your organization is interested in funding. Some organizations choose to list what they fund very specifically in a bullet-point listing with a brief description of what they are looking for. For example, the PSEG Foundation lists the following areas on their website that they are interested in funding:
Education – PSEG’s main focus areas are: workforce development for K-12 or higher education; after-school programs with an educational component; math/science/technology/engineering programs; and, limited funding for special youth programs providing education to underserved populations.
Environment – PSEG’s main focus areas are: global warming and climate change initiatives; renewables; conservation; community greening; and, energy efficiency.
Community and Economic Development – PSEG’s main focus is in revitalizing urban communities by supporting the efforts of community development corporations and other nonprofits that are constructing and/or rehabilitating facilities for affordable or market-rate housing, developing new businesses and entrepreneurial opportunities, creating jobs and/or developing workforces via job skills and life skills training for adults, public safety issues efforts to help protect and preserve neighborhoods.
Other organizations, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, have a more general statement that is currently stated as “Grand Challenges Explorations,” and then they list three major areas of focus and sub-categories within those. Still other organizations choose to indicate in sentence form what they are interested in funding and what they are not interested in funding. For instance, they might say, “we fund early childhood intervention programs but we do not fund the purchasing of equipment or transportation needs.” These and many other forms of grant guidelines exist and it can often be quite confusing for prospective grantees.
Most grantors will tell you that they immediately do not consider any proposal that does not fall within their stated area of funding. Thus, even though prospective grantees may find it difficult to understand what a grantor will fund, if they submit a proposal that does not hit the mark that is where the assessment process will end. It falls upon the prospective grantees to get grant guidelines clarified with grantors and the best way to do that is to contact the organization by e-mail. Grant offices usually have one or two in personnel and it is very difficult and time consuming for them if they have to spend time on the phone when they can answer most inquiries via e-mail. Furthermore, most grantors will not look favorably on random and undirected questions or fishing expeditions and might perceive such inquiries negatively. At the end of the day, even if the grant guidelines are not well crafted, if your proposal is not targeted to them it is a pretty good bet that the process will end there.
Once it is determined by a grantor that your letter of inquiry or proposal (some organizations may require one or both) is within the realm of their funding, the next step is usually a careful reading and analysis of what the prospective grantee has submitted. Sometimes there is a specific grants staff that just reads proposals. Other times, outside experts or advisors are called in and often board and advisory board members get involved in the process. Each organization generally has some framework for assessment in place. Some organizations have rating checklists where proposals are rated as to how successfully they meet the criteria set forth. The reviewing body, in this first phase of assessment, may adopt a strategic approach that furthers the mission of the organization. For instance, if an organization decides to expand its urban reach into suburban or rural communities, reviewers may favor applications that will help fulfill that goal. If a grantor wishes to support new innovations within its stated mission then that may be factor in the assessment of a program. There are innumerable factors that come into play at this point in the grant assessment process and these factors are often quire particular to a given organization.
Despite differences in how organizations review proposals, universally most grantors look at the entity applying in terms of their track record. Some typical areas a grantor may consider involve experience and expertise. Has the prospective grantee ever run such a program before? What is the prospective grantees level of expertise and how will that impact the fulfillment of the proposal? If this is going to be new endeavor for the grantee, how successful have they been in implementing past research endeavors or programs is a good way to gauge success. Many grantors will want to know how effective a prospective grantee has been in managing their budget for past programs. Again, there are numerous questions and approaches that are reviewed by grantors.
One of the key elements in assessing grant proposals is budget. The budget of the grantor and the budget for the program presented by the grantee are major considerations. Most organizations that award grants have a Board of Trustees that determines the amount to be allocated in a given year. There are also state and federal statutes that can come into play based upon the size and type of organization the grantor is. Of course a grantor’s strategic plan should incorporate the allocation of grant award funding. In terms of the budget of a submitted program, most grantors will look at comparables from their past experience with similar programs. Other times, experts are consulted to assess a proposed program’s budget. Some organizations may consider the number of individuals being served or the impact of the research, for instance, in budget assessment process. Again, there are many variables that impact a budgetary assessment of a grant proposal but regardless, this will be an important area of review for a grantor.
Once the pool of applicants has been narrowed down after a process of careful assessment that includes many of the items previously addressed, there is usually a second round of assessment for the remaining contenders. Often a group or committee does this and there is ample discussion and further review involved. During this part of the process there may be some unanswered questions that may come up about a promising proposal which may require a phone call or visit with the prospective grantee. Other experts may be called in to answer questions at this point in the process as well. This in depth part of the assessment process may take weeks or months depending on the due diligence standards of the grantor. This is also the time when any conflicts of interest are usually addressed and each grantor organization should have a stated policy on this matter.
If a prospective grant applicant has made it through this round of the process then things are looking promising but it is not necessarily a done deal. For instance, a grantor may decide that it can only offer partial funding and request that the grantee find other sources of funding before a grant award can be made thereby assuring that the research or program will actually happen. Still other contingencies and changes may need to be addressed before the grant is approved. At this point too, a grantor will generally look at the array of proposals as a whole to make sure that the group of grantees for a given cycle reflects their grant giving intentions. As always, particular considerations come into play for each grantor organization.
Finally, the grant assessment process is over when the grantor determines that all of the variables have been thoroughly and completely considered in accordance with their procedures. The successful grant applicants are then notified and the busy work of coordinating and implementing the proposal begins. For many organizations the assessment process ends here, but not for all. Some grantor organizations have a post grant award process whereby grantees are required to submit interim reports and budget updates. There may be other requirements of grantees as well and these should be clearly spelled out to them by the grantor.
The grant giving process is a long, complicated and often challenging one that requires a great deal of time, focus and tenacity on the part of the grantor. It is my belief that the grantor has a fiduciary responsibility to its donors and supporters as well as the community at large to fulfill this obligation with the greatest integrity and effort possible. Equally, grantees have the obligation to achieve the goals of their proposal and to do so with the highest standards, as presented in their proposal. When these objectives are attained and ongoing assessment assures them then the advancements we seek can be realized.
About the Author
Linda Walder Fiddle, Esq. is the founder and executive director of The Daniel Jordan Fiddle Foundation, a national 501 (c)(3) autism organization with the mission to develop and support through grant-giving, residential, vocational, recreational, educational and family programs that honor the individuality and enhance the lives of adolescents and adults with ASD. The Daniel Jordan Fiddle Foundation has been awarding grants to programs for adults with ASD since 2002 and is the only national autism organization with this specific mission. For more information visit: www.djfiddlefoundation.org.