Six lessons learned as a grant reviewer

When I review a proposal and I can see that the applicant has done a literature review of studies, says Ward.

I recently received an eMail message from an individual who attended a workshop I led on grant writing in February. During my workshops, I often encourage attendees to serve as reviewers if they plan to write grants on a regular basis. This person eMailed me to say that she had been accepted to be a reviewer for her local United Way and that she was excited at the prospect.

Over the years, I have been fortunate to serve as a reviewer for several grant competitions at the local, state, and federal level. Each time I complete my assignment as a reviewer, I find that I have learned more information that makes me a better grant writer. Here are just a few of the things I’ve learned from serving as a reviewer:

(1) Reviewing grants helps you express projects in more clear, concise language.

When the funding decisions rest on your own shoulders, it provides a completely different perspective than the one you have when you’re trying to prepare a document that will convince others you are worthy of funding! During the review process, each proposal is reviewed on its own merits. However, there is no denying that a proposal that makes sense, and is easy to follow and understand, is more likely to score higher than one that is convoluted, riddled with spelling and grammatical errors, and is difficult to understand.

(2) Reviewing grants gives you an opportunity to learn how the budget form relates to both program and budget narratives.

Reviewers really do scrutinize budgets and carefully match line items in the budget with what is outlined in the activities or methodology section. I have sat on review panels where questions have been raised about the number of staff that are included in the project (especially when it looks like there are too many staff listed—or conversely, not enough staff—for the work that is projected to be done), as well as the percentage of effort that is listed for everyone, the amount of equipment that is going to be purchased, and the amount of travel that is included.

(3) Seeing hard copies of proposals drives home the recommendation that I often see in federal RFPs: “Be sure to make a hard copy of your proposal before you submit it electronically.”

This not only allows you to see just exactly how many pages you will have (thus meeting the page limitation requirements), but also what those pages look like. I have seen my fair share of maps in proposals that are totally unreadable, probably because they were developed in color, but as a reviewer, I am provided with a black-and-white copy. If you have important information described on a map but not included in the narrative, it can be lost in the copying process. The same goes for tables and charts. Make sure that what you have created is clearly readable when it’s copied. My recommendation would be to always use black and white! And remember, the copies for reviewers might be made on a machine that isn’t new, so the copies aren’t crisp and clean.

(4) Reviewing grants has given me a lot of information about evaluation tools, as well as ideas for data collection and analysis that I can incorporate into future projects of my own.

(5) Reviewing grants has illustrated the important role that literature reviews can play when addressing the need for a project.

When I review a proposal and I can see that the applicant has done a literature review of studies that point out what works and does not work (i.e., best practices), I believe the applicant is more credible when discussing the need for its project—and why the applicant chose the solution(s) it did to address the need. This same lesson applies to statistics that are included to support the need for a project. When I read statistics, especially those collected on a local and/or state level that cite the depth and breadth of a problem, I understand why the applicant has chosen to address it in the proposal.

(6) Reviewing grants has shown me the importance of the review criteria.

This section is often found at the very end of the RFP or on a separate web page. I would be willing to bet that most grant writers do not spend much time looking at this section—but that would be a huge mistake! When you serve as a reviewer, this is the most important section of the RFP. Many times, you are not looking at the entire RFP; you are only presented with a scoring matrix or checklist and asked to score a section of each proposal. Typically, this matrix is based on the RFP review criteria, so clearly it makes sense to read through the review criteria before you submit a proposal to make sure you have not missed anything.

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