Doing Good, Well: Building a Better Review Process for Grant Proposals

01/07/2020

It may not be terribly exciting, but it is sacred.

The review process for grant proposals is where funders get to execute on their stated values. Selecting organizations for funding to pursue mission-driven outcomes in the community is a big task, and not having the tool to choose wisely can harm your goals and your impact.

With so many important and worthy causes out there, the process can be difficult emotionally, but it doesn’t have to be challenging operationally. Still, it can be a challenge to synthesize the collection, review and selection of grants into one seamless and efficient process.

From peer reviewers and program officers to division directors and board members, the grant review process can and should be streamlined so that impact can be maximized and hassle can be minimized.

Let’s dig into how that works.

These principles should drive how you evaluate grant proposals

principles should drive how you evaluate grant proposals

Always consider both sides of the coin.

Every adjustment you make to the grant review process will have an impact on grant-seekers as well as your team of grant managers.

When refining how you review grant proposals, be sure to communicate about potential improvements with both parties so you gain empathy and a well-rounded view of how to make things better.

At the highest level, you’ll want your grant review process to be guided by a few key principles, grounded in what produces the best submission and review experiences for all parties.

Here are a few guideposts to consider:

Confidentiality

When you’re juggling sensitive information about the inner workings of organizations, discretion is a must.

All data, documents, knowledge and related proposals must be handled within the strictest confidence. Set up your submission portal so that applicants are aware of the security measures you have in place to ensure the privacy of their information.

Also, consider adjusting permission within your grants management system to limit the number of users who have access to sensitive organizational information. With multiple stakeholders involved across various accounts, it can be easy to give broad access without thinking through the security implications.

Keep grant-seekers’ private information on a need-to-know basis within one centralized platform that you can easily control.

Fairness

Let’s have a good clean fight (for grant funding), whaddya say?

This is one is simple. Set up a grant review process that is as free of bias as possible.

It all starts with gaining knowledge about the types of bias that exist. Then, build specific steps within your grant review process to minimize and eliminate it. Whether it’s using a diverse peer review committee or setting quotas for specific under-represented groups in your community, there’s a great deal that can be done to ensure fairness in the grant review process.

Do your utmost to ensure that all grant proposals are treated equally. Doing so will lead to greater impact, happier grantees, and a stronger grantmaking position for your organization. Anonymous review is one great way to ensure fairer treatment. When reviewers and applicants are unknown to each other, under-represented applicants are simply afforded more equal footing when applying.

Being known as the fair but tough grantmaker is quite a desirable image and will lead to better grant proposals down the road, along with more opportunities to maximize the impact of your giving.

Excellence

It’s what every grant review process strives for.

The good part is that there’s no disagreement here. Grant-seekers and grantmakers both want projects that demonstrate a high level of quality. Both parties want to see funds used judiciously while maximizing the social impact of each project.

Pre-screening proposals based on stated grant goals and your organizational values is a great way to ensure quality at the front-end. By asking the right questions on pre-screening forms, organizations can essentially pre-screen themselves and help grantmakers narrow the pool of applicants to only the most qualified.

Having rigorous reporting metrics for the grant itself at the outset also helps set expectations for grantees and communicates that follow-through is expected in terms of the grant objectives.

There’s also the matter of excellence in the grantmaking process itself. Using a streamlined submission portal for all of your grant proposal goes a long way towards easing burdens for grant-seekers and grant managers.

It also benefits all parties to focus on the substance of the grant-funded work in the community. Now that’s excellent.

Efficiency

Less time in the paperwork, more time in the project work.

As mentioned above, whatever you can do to streamline grants management, do it. For grant-seekers, knowing the resources they’re getting and being able to spend more time deploying them in communities is the key to impact. When grant-seekers have a well-written application, that’s another form of efficiency that saves everyone time.

For grants managers, less hassle in administration means that more energy and focus can be put towards driving those resources to organizations and finding new and creative ways to support the work going on in communities. A well-organized review team, supported by the right systems, is another way to think about efficiency in the grant application process.

Modern submission software ensures proposals are evaluated fully and grants awarded and administered as swiftly as possible. When this happens, grantmakers can literally offer more grants to a greater number of organizations at a higher level of quality.

Transparency

Being transparent in grantmaking starts with clear grant guidelines.

Those guidelines should flow from organizational values and specific grant goals. All funding decisions should be based on these clearly defined rules that are communicated to grant-seekers before any grant application is released.

In terms of process, your submission portal should let grant-seekers know where they are in the process at all points. This can reduce administrative burdens on your team as well by eliminating needless back and forth about the status of grant applications.

Grantmakers should make the effort to communicate feedback on grant applications as well as their rationale behind funding decisions. Grant-seekers who are doing the hard work in communities and taking the time to apply for funding deserve that level of clarity about how their grant applications are performing.

This level of transparency also helps future applicants hone their applicants thereby improving the overall pipeline of grant proposals over the long-term. Even after grants are awarded and grant reporting has begun, it’s important to keep this next step in the process open so that grantmakers and grant-seekers can learn and improve as grants are administered.

The openness is well worth the effort.

Ways to improve the grant proposal review process

Ways to improve the grant proposal review process

Now let’s go a level deeper.

With key principles like excellence, fairness, and transparency now firmly in mind, we can dig into the specific tactics and tools grantmakers can use to build a stronger grant review process.

Pre-screen applicants

A strong grants management portal should do a good deal of work for you.

Set it up to walk applicants through a series of questions that will effectively vet their candidacy before your team dives into a drawn-out application review step. Whether you’re vetting for organization size, topical focus, budgetary request, or any other factor, there’s a lot of value in checking for the basics at this early stage using you submission software.

Think of this as a net to catch and re-route applicants that might not be a good fit for this particular grant application, but may be better suited for other grants being offered.

This is a huge efficiency and time-saving mechanism for grants managers and can easily be deployed through a modern submission platform, which we’ll get into below.

Automate assignments and notifications

Grant review process are often about keeping the work moving among stakeholders.

With a modern submission platform, you can set deadline notifications and send automated reminders to keep everyone in the loop. There’s no need to chase down reviewers or manually move the work from one person to another with the right system in place.

Laying out the review work over a clear timeline with automations in place to keep the balling rolling is workflow of the day for grants management.

Reduce unnecessary information

Ask any grant-seeker: They’re tired of repeating themselves.

Too many grant applications (across multiple funders, no less) ask for unnecessary or distracting information from applicants.

When funders seek out only the most important information that is directly relevant to the grants in question, both parties save time and energy that could be better spent on the actual work of the grant (or future grantmaking).

Leverage your submission portal to pull information from the pre-screening pages into the grant application itself. Narrow the questions asked of grant-seekers to only those directly relevant to the grant goals and priorities.

Make sure there’s a clear through-line between what’s asked of grant-seekers and what the application calls for. Nothing more and nothing less.

Standardize repeatable steps

This is where automation through your submission portal kicks (process-driven) butt.

While not all grant application processes are created the same, they’re not all wildly different either. Without some form of automation, your grants managers will be repeating the same steps over again.

With automation in play, you can notify grant-seekers of their status regularly and even update grant reporting procedures across multiple grants without needing a set of human hands.

One way to increase the rigor of your selection process and deepen the feedback you give to applicants is to standardize these repeatable steps in the grantmaking process using your submission software. Another way is to integrate reporting and tracking of funding into your selection process so that funding decisions are based on real-time data.

Use modern submission software

When it comes to executing on the principles above and streamlining your grant review process, you’ll benefit from a modern submission platform that takes on much of that work.

From automating key steps in the process to protecting sensitive information in one secure portal, such software is essential for today’s grantmakers. Grant-seekers and grants managers save significant time and grants themselves are improved when all of the action happens in one centralized space.

The days of paper grant applications and interoffice mail envelopes are gone. So are the days of bulky spreadsheets and mountains of emails. Time to upgrade.

Automating the grant review process to maximize impact

Leveraging a modern submission portal is your fastest route to a better grant review process.

From automating reviewer assignments and side-by-side views of applications to regular workflow notifications and streamlined application questions, the right software can help you save time and reduce hassles as your team manages and decides on grant proposals.

Getting to that crucial “yes” with organizations is the key, so why not take the obstacles out of the way by putting the right tools into the hands of your grants managers?

That’s how you do good while doing it well.

Paul Perry
Paul Perry

Paul Perry is a writer and former educator with significant experience in nonprofit management. He has a soft spot for grant-seekers striving to make the world a better, more just place.