Who Reviews Your Proposals?

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Sending off a well-written, credible proposal is the first act in the drama. Now comes the mystery – someone, somewhere is going to read it, evaluate it and decide whether or not to fund it. Who are those guys? Who reads, votes, rejects or rewards your effort?


First, consider the size of the staff at the funder you’re approaching. If it’s the Gates Foundation, the person-power is close to 1,800. If it’s a community foundation in a major metro area, it might be 50-75 people. For a small private grantmaking foundation, there might be a staff of 10 or even fewer.


Staff size matters because if it’s a very large staff, there are probably program assistants or associates who take a first crack at proposals. If yours passes the first test, it might make its way up a chain to program director, then maybe becomes part of a package of recommendations handed to a senior executive, who might in turn present the package to the board for approval.


If it’s a very small foundation, with very few staffers—well, your proposal might only get one chance (i.e. pass muster and be screened by a single staffer) to make it into the “yes” column. You can make some pretty safe assumptions about the reviewer. That person will likely: have at least a bachelor’s degree, probably a graduate degree; be experienced in the field your proposal is addressing; and have too many proposals to read through.


The initial screening process is intended to weed out proposals that are clearly outside the focus of the funder. The first-cut screening also eliminates proposals that are late, or in the wrong format, or the wrong font or type size, or any of a number of other requirements that are (unfortunately) the ways foundations have to whittle down the pile.


Beyond the issues of form or preparation, there is a body of information that all reviewers probably subscribe to, however informally. Some years ago, a coalition of funders created the “Due Diligence Tool”—a 65-page handbook for assessing an applicant and its proposal for funding. The publication, by Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, is a useful blueprint for nonprofits wanting to understand what reviewers are thinking about as they examine requests for support.


It takes a little work to understand who’s going to be reviewing your proposal and what they’re going to scrutinize. Federal and other public funding opportunities often come with “evaluation criteria,” grantmaking foundations are not always so transparent. But understanding how you’ll be evaluated is a helpful component of proposal preparation.


Thomas Boyd is Chief Editorial Consultant for The Grantsmanship Center
and an independent consultant to nonprofit organizations.

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