Funding Toolbox: Here’s how most grant proposals are reviewed

When conducting grant writing workshops, I’m often asked about the application review process for state and federal grants. Just what happens to your proposal from the time you send it in (or drop it off at the last minute!) to the time you receive notification of funding?

I want to share with you my knowledge of the process based on first-hand experience and conversations with funders. Remember that each review process is unique, and there is no one uniform way the process is carried out.

The first step of the review process occurs when you submit your proposal.

Usually, internal staff will quickly review it to determine whether you have the basic requirements listed in the RFP (request for proposals), such as a cover page, necessary governmental forms and assurances, and specific attachments that the funder has requested (for example, your district technology plan).

During this preliminary check, staff will also be looking to see if you have violated any of the formatting rules with regard to page limits, margins, and/or font size. If you did, don’t be surprised to find out later on that your proposal was disqualified and never actually made it to the reviewers!

After the initial processing, proposals are given to the grant readers for their review and scoring. The number of proposals received and the total number of readers will dictate how many proposals that each person reviews and scores, which will also impact the length of time that the reviewing process takes. Generally, most reviewers have from 20 to 30 proposals to score, but again, these numbers can be as low as five and as high as more than 100.

Each reviewer gets a scoring sheet to use as he or she reads through each proposal, looking for specific items. In some RFPs, this scoring checklist will be included—so be sure to look for it and use it to go over your proposal one last time before you submit it.

Using the checklist, reviewers assign a score to each section of your proposal and then add these up to get a final score. Usually, reviewers are also asked to write comments about the strengths and weaknesses of the proposal to assist those applicants who want to reapply.

After they have calculated the final score for each proposal, reviewers may be asked to rank the proposals in descending order on a final tally sheet. These tally sheets are then collected and a final list of the highest scoring proposals is created using some statistical analyses.

There can be variations to this process, however. In some cases, each reviewer only reads a specific section of every proposal—the needs statement, for example—and scores only this section. Reviewers then come together and piece together the sections of each proposal, adding up the scores of each section to come up with a tallied score for the entire proposal, then ranking the proposals by score in descending order.

In some reviews, readers are put onto review teams. After each individual has read and scored the proposals, the team gets together and reviews each proposal’s score and comments. Proposals with a variance in scores are looked at again, and scores may be changed—either up or down. The group then comes to a consensus on the final tally sheet of the proposals they have read.

Other review processes may use a “tier” approach. Proposals are read at the first tier, scored, and tallied. Proposals making the “first cut” then go on to the second tier, where they are scored and tallied. The final list might be decided here, or proposals making the second cut might then go on to a third tier for final scoring and tally.

Often, the final step of the process before awards are announced is a review of the scores and ranked proposals by staff. In some instances, staff must also take into consideration factors such as geographic distribution, or equitable funding for urban and rural school districts, before final funding decisions are made. Generally, you should expect the entire review process to take about three months.

In my next article, I’ll talk about how to become a grant reader and be part of this fascinating review process. As anyone who’s ever been a grant reader knows, no other single experience can better prepare you to become a successful grant writer. n

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