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The Black Box of Grant Proposal Review (Part 1)

2014-July 9
by Don Matteson, Chief Program Officer

Before I moved across the desk to the grantmaking side, I always wondered what happened to grant requests after they were submitted. The grant review process always seemed like a black box that ate grant requests and spat out replies (usually; sometimes they ended up lost in the space-time continuum, most likely with all the socks that get lost in the wash). Now that I spend a fair bit of time reviewing grant proposals, I thought it might be interesting to share the Tower Foundation's process for reviewing grant requests. In the interest of keeping things out of TL;DR-land, I'll cover this in several pieces over the next few weeks.

We make grants in several ways, and I'm focusing in this series on our most "traditional" grantmaking: our annual cycles. We release sets of guidelines focusing on the substantive fields we fund: mental health, intellectual disabilities, substance abuse, and learning disabilities. Each annual cycle has a set schedule with submission deadlines and a clear time line for communicating the status of grant requests to our applicants.

Like many foundations, we divide the application process into two parts: letters of inquiry (or preliminary grant requests, now that we're all online and fancy) and full proposals. We don't want folks to spend a ton of time slaving away over grant proposals that have very little chance of being funded, so we ask for a brief overview of the project. No attachments, no detailed budgets, no logic models -- just a brief narrative describing your organization, what you'd like to do, how it aligns with the Foundation's goals, a general sense of how much money you plan to request, and how you anticipate spending those funds. If a request makes it past the preliminary submission stage (no mean feat -- the competition is fierce!), we request a full proposal. So, what happens in between the preliminary submission and the decision that comes back from the Foundation?

Once the submission deadline passes, we read every single request that was submitted on time. The number of requests we get for each annual cycle these days ranges from 13 to 40, but it's been as high as 52. Each member of the program staff -- Executive Director, Chief Program Officer, and our two Program Officers -- goes over each request individually.

After we've gone over each request on our own, we come together in a staff meeting (or a few meetings) to discuss each request. We go around the table and talk about each submission to make sure we're all understanding it the same way, to explore how it fits with the Foundation's goals and strategies, to see how the idea fits within the community, and to discuss the potential it has for making a difference in the lives of the people we serve.

By the time we've finished that conversation, we've usually eliminated between half and two-thirds of the requests. To be very truthful, we see ourselves as gatekeepers at this stage -- we're looking for reasons to exclude a request. We're not going to get hung up on minor stuff like typos or non-standard punctuation, but we are looking for solid ideas that are well-aligned with the Foundation's articulated goals and preferred strategies.

We divide up the remaining requests among the staff and we assemble cover sheets for each that summarize their alignment with our strategic plan. From there, we share the cover sheets and preliminary submissions with our Trustees.

Because our Trustees are spread out between New York (where we're located) and Massachusetts (where we also fund), these meetings are generally conducted by videoconference (or phone conference, when technology chooses not to be our friend). At the subcommittee meetings, the program staff discusses the number of proposals it can review within the given time frame in light of other work demands (usually between four and six total), then presents the requests. The Trustees debate the relative merits of the requests before them, then agonize over which ones ultimately make the cut. Once that decision's been made, the staff goes through the process of sending out the proposal invitations.

At this point, I should note that even though the Foundation funds in six counties across two states, we have not structured our allocations to ensure that equal funding goes to each area. We take the best requests we have, irrespective of geography. We might someday move toward partitioning our allocations by geography, but that isn't likely to happen in the near future.

The next post in this series will offer some insight into the process of submitting a full proposal for one of the Tower Foundation's annual cycles. In the meantime, please feel free to ask questions or challenge our processes. We love to think hard about how to do this work better!

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