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The Black Box of Grant Proposal Review (Part 2)

2014-July 16
by Don Matteson, Chief Program Officer

Previously, I wrote about the front-end of our annual cycle grant review process, in which we look at preliminary submissions. In this post, I'll cover what happens when we review full proposals.

First of all, we try very hard not to request more proposals than we can fund. This is an important philosophical point for us, which ties back to the earlier post on partial funding: Expecting Cadillac Results on a Chevy Budget. As a result, once we request a full proposal, the funding is effectively the applicant's to lose. Most often, we decline full proposals when the nature of the project changes significantly between preliminary request and full proposal, the work plan doesn't develop in a way that seems likely to achieve and sustain the proposed goals, or if we discover during our due diligence that the organization has significant issues with administration, finance, or other capacity.

Another thing that bears mentioning is that the Program Officer role changes from gatekeeper to advocate. Where we try to eliminate weaker requests during the preliminary phase (though not all eliminated requests are weak!), our primary objective during the full proposal review is to develop the strongest possible project with the expectation that the Foundation will fund it.

On to proposal review mechanics! After the staff has vetted the preliminary submissions and the Trustees have chosen the projects for which they'd like to see full proposals, we assign each request to a Program Officer. We send out our proposal invitations by email using our grants management system, but Program Officers also call their proposal contacts to let them know about the invitation. (Sometimes the email invitations get caught by overly-aggressive spam filters.)

Generally, we provide between five and seven weeks for applicants to complete  their proposals before the submission deadline. The time frame depends a lot on holidays and academic calendars, since we often field proposals from school districts. We sometimes get phone calls or emails from applicants with questions as they work on their proposals, but this is surprisingly uncommon.

When applicants go back into the online grants portal to complete their full proposals, they find their preliminary grant requests intact, with quite a few new questions that need to be answered. We've built our application so that the information from the preliminary request is still part of the full proposal, with the additional questions simply requesting greater detail. We hope that this streamlines the applications and reduces the time needed to complete the proposal by at least a little bit.

Once the new questions have been answered, the budgets budgeted, the attachments attached, and the proposals submitted, the program officers go over their assigned grants with a fine-toothed comb. It usually takes one or two weeks to go over the proposals in some depth, depending on what else we have going on around the office. At this point we set up meetings (or phone calls if the applicants are in Massachusetts) to start going over the proposals.

These meetings and phone calls are the most important part of the proposal review process. We ask questions and raise issues that need to be addressed before we can put the full proposal in front of our Trustees. During the review process, we work with our applicants to ensure that the project's work plan is sound, the budget matches the project's scope and activities, and that proposed outcomes are clear and measurable. Where revisions are called for, we have applicants make the changes directly in the grants portal.

While there's a power imbalance inherent in the grant maker-grant seeker relationship, we do our best during this process to foster open conversation. We invite our applicants to engage in meaningful discussion about the concerns we have and how they can be addressed (or whether the concerns are even warranted!). These conversations are critical because they help establish the trust that is necessary to create the best possible proposals and, by extension, to do the greatest good for the people we serve. This trust also means that we are also very candid about each proposal's status; if there are significant concerns, we communicate these to the applicants immediately, and try to be very clear if they jeopardize the request's chances of being funded.

Another byproduct of this collaborative review process is that by the time the proposal is ready to go before our Trustees, the applicant has a clear picture of what to expect from the Foundation. There are very few surprises with respect to award amounts, how those funds can be used, or other restrictions.

Throughout the review, the Program Officers keep each other updated about what they're seeing in the proposals and we talk through issues that are tricky or that we haven't run into before. This process helps us out because all of the Program Officers have some familiarity with all of the proposals, as well as ensuring consistency in the way issues are handled across multiple grants. We make a very deliberate effort to ensure that applicants are treated fairly and consistently, irrespective of which Program Officer they're assigned.

After we've worked with our applicants to finalize the grant requests (which typically requires two or three rounds of questions and conversations), the Program Officers put together proposal summaries to help facilitate the Trustees' decisions about each project. These documents provide high-level overviews of each project's concept, rationale, work plan, and budget, as well as a five-dimension rubric that captures the Program Officer's assessment of the project being recommended. The dimensions we evaluate are:

  • Alignment - Does the project (and the organization) match well with the Foundation's goals and target population?

  • Impact - Is the project going to make a difference in the lives of the people we serve that's proportionate to the size of the grant? Is the project adding anything to the community? This is not a simple dollars-per-person-served calculation; we look at this case-by-case and consider the complexity and depth of the work being proposed.

  • Capacity - Does the applicant have the resources and wherewithal to execute the project successfully? If we've worked with them before, does the applicant have a good track record with project implementation?

  • Feasibility - Is this a work plan that can be accomplished in the time frame proposed and within the budget requested? Are there clear, measurable outcomes that will help us assess the project's effectiveness?

  • Sustainability - Is this project (or its impact) likely to continue after the grant period ends?

These summaries and the proposals go out to our Trustees a week or two before we meet to discuss the requests. At the meeting (again, often held by video conference), the Program Officers present the proposals they've reviewed with the understanding that if the Trustees are seeing the proposal, the Program Officer is endorsing it. Each proposal is discussed in some depth, and the Trustees vote on whether or not to award the grant.

After the meeting, the Program Officers update the records in our grants management system and make phone calls to the applicants letting them know how their proposal fared. Those phone calls are one of the best parts of our jobs.

Well, that's what goes on in the "black box" of the Tower Foundation's grant review process.  We'd love to hear what you think: What do you like? What do you think we ought to do differently?

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