4 Ways to Please the Reviewers of Your Government Grant Proposal

Reviewer looking a a grant proposal.
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Have you ever wondered what goes on behind closed doors when your federal or state grant application goes through its review? 

As a writer, I was always curious. I pictured days of discussions about the merits of each application, intertwined with arguments about whom to fund and for how much. I imagined those discussions took place in vaulted libraries in hushed tones and deliberations held over many pots of coffee.

When I became a federal reviewer, I got to see behind the curtain and was astonished at the method of today’s formal reviews. The reality is nothing like what I imagined!

1. Know Your Audience

First, many reviews (especially for education and social services) are conducted by small panels of three reviewers. Usually, the group includes one practitioner, one scholar, and one evaluation or grants expert.

These reviewers may have only 90-120 minutes to review your grant application and may have to review seven to 10 other applications. That does not give reviewers much time to consider all the details of your proposal.

They probably get to read your proposal once, take notes, and skim the most relevant sections once or twice more. Then they have to prepare notes and questions, score your narrative section by section, and give your application a final score.

Then the reviewers come together as a group, usually by conference call, to give each section a final score.

That score usually averages all the reviewers’ scores per section. However, there is some flexibility as the conference call allows the reviewers to share opinions on the merits of each section.

For instance, an evaluation expert may be able to convince the other two reviewers (who may or may not have reviewed this section as carefully) that the evaluation plan lacks in critical areas.

That judgment could have a significant impact on your final score.

So, what can you do to capture reviewers’ attention and make your application stand out from the pack?

First, you should build a great program/solution. That is the foundation for a winning federal or state application. 

You must clearly state the credibility, capacity, and sustainability of your organization and its leadership. Be sure to pair that with sufficient evidence for both the need and your solution. 

You can learn more about positioning your application for success by reading the article, Government Grants for Nonprofits: 8 Ways to Compete.

2. Hold Your Reviewers’ Attention

First, know your audience. Think about the grants or evaluation expert. You may keep her attention by explicitly linking all of your activities with your outcomes. Make sure your objectives, inputs, outputs, and outcomes make sense.

Use multiple and complementary evaluation methodologies to gather data. Partner with a local (and well-respected) college or university scholar, paid or unpaid, who can help you. Expert evaluators on review panels appreciate it when you bring in external help when you need it.

What about the practitioner on the panel?

He may be concerned about how you focus on the need and humanize your project. You must build bridges between problems and goals (direct actions).

You must base your solution on best practices.  So be sure to show your reviewers you have done your homework by referencing nationally recognized best practices you have included in your solution. 

Highlight your innovative approach to addressing local needs, and include how your program is or will be replicable to other communities with similar needs.

3. Know Why People Give: Think Like a Reviewer

Reviewers want to see if you would be a good steward of state or federal dollars.  So they are, in a sense, “giving” to your organization. The reviewers, like any donors, are persuaded by three things:

  • Pathos—emotion
    Use client anecdotes, testimonials, and real stories of how your solution will affect people’s lives. People want to give to real people. Show your reviewers the faces of people who will be served by your project.
  • Logos—reason
    Use an evidence-based approach, including hard data from current, reliable sources. People want to give based on the evidence for both your need and solution. Show your reviewers that you did your homework.
  • Ethos—character
    Project the image of a winning team with strong bios for your executive team and program staff. People want to give to winners who are more likely to be good stewards of public dollars.

As they consider your application, reviewers will:

  • Seek to support your future service to community
  • Compare your organization to other nonprofits
  • Look for evidence of planning and capacity

4. Improve Application Readability

You can help reviewers read your application with these simple tactics:

  • Use one-inch margins that leave sufficient white space
    Use block paragraphs to increase white space. We need white space to give our eyes a break during lengthy reviews. It can also help break up sections into more manageable “chunks” and increase comprehension.
  • Use headers and sub-headers
    Use the list of evaluation criteria presented in the guidelines for your proposal to determine your headers. Write them exactly as written and in the order they are presented. This one thing will make it easier for reviewers to find the items they must read and score.
  • Use easy to read fonts
    Use a sans serif font (fonts with no feet like Arial, Calibri, or Helvetica) for headers and sub-headers Use serif font (fonts with feet like Times New Roman, Garamond, or Cambria) for body text
  • Avoid jargon and nomenclature
    If your reviewers are not experts in your field, how will they score your proposal if they do not know what you are saying? Don't take a chance, explain any terms that might mystify a reviewer.
  • Use a readability test
    Use the Flesch Reading Ease Test and make your goal a reading ease score of between 60 and 100. A higher score indicates that your writing is easier to understand.

    The reading level for grant proposals should be around the 8th grade (hint: the reading level for USA Today is the 2nd grade while National Geographic is 9th or 10th grade).

    If you use Microsoft Word to write your proposal, click on the review tab to learn what grade level you're writing to. Try new apps such as Grammarly and Hemingway to check grammar, passive sentences, and more. Improve your review scores by using fewer words and writing shorter sentences. 

Most important, remember that your reviewers do not have an infinite amount of time to review your proposal. So make it easy for them. 

Personal stories, hard data, and your credibility will motivate reviewers. You can ease the review process by organizing your proposal in a way that reflects the criteria they have to score. 

Write a high-quality, high-impact proposal and frame so that it is easy to read.  It sounds simple, but you'll be surprised how much you will improve your chances of funding.