Five ways grant reviewers can help applicants

A colleague who serves as a grant proposal reviewer recently asked me if I knew of any resources that reviewers could use to help them provide comments to applicants. Although I don’t know of any–and if you do, please eMail me and let me know!–I started thinking about why this was such a good question that needs more exploration.

I don’t know any proposal writers who have a 100-percent success rate. Chances are, at one time or another, you’re going to receive a rejection letter from a funder. Yes, it will hurt–but once you’re over the initial sting of rejection, it’s time to use this as a learning experience as you move forward.

Unless, of course, you receive the type of letter that simply reads: “We received so many good proposals, and unfortunately we didn’t select yours for funding, but thanks for applying.” In my opinion, these letters don’t help anyone become a better proposal writer.

If you’re like me, then you don’t give up when you receive a rejection letter for the first time. Being rejected makes me more determined to resubmit the application, writing a stronger narrative than I did before and addressing any holes I might have left in my first submission.

However, if you don’t receive any specific feedback, you have to play a guessing game and hope that your second application will be worthy of funding, though the first was not. This is risky, and frankly, I could do with specific feedback.

If I could speak to reviewers before they look at proposals, here is what I would ask of them:

(1) Please be as specific as you can in your comments. For example, don’t tell applicants that their “project raised lots of questions.” What specific questions do you have? Was the target population too hard to figure out? Was the methodology section too vague? Did the personnel section make you question the applicant’s ability to manage the project?

(2) Don’t tell applicants that they had an “excellent proposal, but we decided not to fund it.” This one really hurts! Again, applicants would like to know why you reached this decision. Did you want to fund new areas of the country? Did you end up awarding less money than you originally planned?

(3) Provide applicants with insight as to which sections of their proposal are the strongest and which are weak and need some work. If applicants reapply, they’ll know there are some parts of the proposal they really don’t need to change that much, and they should focus their efforts on strengthening the weaker sections. And, with strong feedback, they should know just what to do to address those weak sections.

(4) Please tell applicants if their writing style made reading the proposal difficult. They might have used sections written by different people and didn’t do a good job putting the sections together so they flowed well. In the future, it might be wiser to have one person do the majority of the writing, using information provided by others.

(5) Use your scoring criteria as a guide to making comments. If specific items were missing from a section of the proposal, and these were used to determine a score, let the applicant know what these items were. If the requested statistics were not included in the needs section, identify them. If evaluation tools were not included, point this out.

If reviewers do not also write grants, it’s important for them to understand the key role their feedback plays for writers. Proposal writers need reviewers to help them learn and make them better at what they do. Without specific feedback, this process cannot occur. Writers might continue to submit proposals that will not be funded–and reviewers will have to continue reading them!

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