What Do Reviewers Like to See in Grant Proposals?

When you submit a grant proposal, in most cases the proposal will be evaluated by a panel of reviewers convened by the funder (i.e., the private foundation or government agency that posted the opportunity). To make the process as fair and objective as possible, those evaluating the proposal rate it against a set of predetermined criteria. Sometimes the evaluation criteria and how they are weighted even appear in the solicitation itself, providing applicants with valuable information about how to structure their proposal.

The proposal reviewers face a daunting task of reading and scoring a mountain of proposals to get the pile down to reasonable number, and from this short-listed group, down to the ultimate winner (or winners, if the funding mechanism provides for multiple awards). As you can imagine, slogging through a pile of grant proposals is not a fun task. To reduce the number of proposals to be reviewed, funders look for reasons to eliminate proposals from consideration. As we’ve mentioned elsewhere on the blog, sometimes what trips an applicant up is failure to follow directions regarding the required formatting of a proposal. Other times, the issues can be more serious such as a failure to follow the proposal guidelines regarding the allowed or required content, including omitting a mandatory section or submitting a budget that is over the limit. 

If you do not follow the proposal guidelines to the letter—from formatting instructions and submission guidelines to the proposal’s required content and budget amount—your proposal may be tossed out from further consideration for noncompliance.

Addressing all the required proposal elements is essential. However, following the proposal guidelines only means that your proposal has passed the first of many hurdles. For your proposal to result in an award, you must also hold the reviewers’ attention by presenting your thoughts in a clear and persuasive manner. If reviewers find a section of your proposal confusing and impossible to follow, they won’t be able to score that section highly. While one low-scoring section won’t necessarily be enough to push your proposal outside of the competitive range, sometimes it is. It all depends on what the evaluation criteria are and how they’re weighted.

To help your proposal score well and have a better chance of being funded, look at your proposal from the perspective of a potential reviewer: Have you given them what they need to give your proposal a top score? As you revise your proposal, you’ll want to pay particular attention to those areas you know are going to be weighted heavily based on the evaluation criteria or the funder’s interests and programmatic priorities.

Making It Easy for Reviewers to Evaluate Your Proposal

Below are several things you can employ to make your grant proposals stronger, more competitive, and easier for reviewers to score more favorably.

Prioritize Clear Writing

If a reviewer can’s follow what you’re saying, it’s impossible for your application to be successful. The importance of submitting a clearly written proposal cannot be overstated. For many people, their writing is clearer and easier to read and usually more engaging the closer it is to the way they normally talk. If writing does not come naturally to you and you cannot find anyone to help you to write the proposal, try recording yourself talking about how you will approach each section of the grant application. Next, listen to the recording and enter your notes into your proposal outline under the appropriate heading. You may even want to transcribe parts of the recording verbatim. This technique can help overcome writer’s block if you can articulate your thoughts orally.

Keep Your Language Jargon-Free 

Every field has its own internal language, including an alphabet soup of commonly used abbreviations. Make sure you define each abbreviation on first use in your proposal and include an alphabetical list of the abbreviations and their definitions at the front of your document. If you can avoid using an abbreviation, do so. For example, if a name or phrase only appears once in your document, you don’t need to add the abbreviation parenthetically within the document or include the abbreviation in your list of abbreviations.

The proposal reviewers may not be familiar with your community, the region of the world where you operate, or understand the structure or terminology used to describe your local context such as your governance system, healthcare system, or political hierarchy. To you, it may be completely obvious and self-evident what a particular word or phrase means, but it may not mean anything to the reviewers. Jargon can be confusing and impenetrable at best and alienating and exclusionary at its worse. To root out jargon, it helps to have someone read your proposal who is outside of your immediate circle. 

Don’t Assume the Reviewer is an Expert in Your Field

It’s safe to assume that whoever evaluates your proposal will be educated and informed. However, they are probably not all going to be subject-matter experts, so it’s important to explain more technical concepts in terms that a non- or less-technical person can follow. For example, if you are writing a proposal to a foundation requesting funding to address food insecurity in your geographic area, you should not assume that the reviewer will be an expert in food insecurity or knowledgeable about all of the factors that contribute to food insecurity in the region of the world where you operate.

While you don’t want to sound condescending or “dumb down” your language, you should add enough detail and explanation to enable a non-expert to understand why a problem is so pressing, what the challenges are, and why your proposed solution or intervention is sound and likely to succeed. 

Don’t State the Obvious

“HIV/AIDS is a terrible disease,” “many people in the world are living with chronic hunger”  "homelessness is a serious issue," "illiteracy is a barrier to employment,” "clean water is essential.” Yes, all true. So true you don’t to include statements like this in your proposal. With most proposals, you have to be concerned about page limits, so it’s imperative to use your limited space wisely. Using valuable space to repeat widely known or self-evident truths is not strategic. While you don’t want to assume that someone is a technical expert, you should assume that they are educated and reasonably well informed and do not need to be told basic or universal truths. Your job as the grant writer is to demonstrate your knowledge about an issue, its importance, and how your organization can make a difference. Instead of presenting general information about a societal problem, paint a picture of the problem that you see in your day-to-day work. For example, if you work on the issue of homelessness, you would want to describe the unique contributors to homelessness in your community. When you provide context-specific information about an issue, you not only educate the funder but also potentially win them over to your cause.

Provide Adequate Documentation

For some sections of a proposal, including the background section and the description of the proposed monitoring and evaluation plan, you may need to provide data to support what you’re saying as well as reference government reports, policies, or laws. 

Whenever you provide information from external sources, you should cite the source. You should do this for several reasons. First, you want to make it easy for the reviewers to find the original source document. Second, it’s important to give credit to the authors or publishers of the cited reference. Third, by providing a full citation, you’re sharing with reviewers that what you’ve written is supported by legitimate sources. 

The documentation you provide may not be external. In some cases, you may be referencing your own project data or an internal report. If this is the case, you’ll still want to provide a citation, and if possible, a hyperlink to any public documents such as an annual report that include information about project results or other data you’ve referenced in your proposal. 

Submit a Proposal of the Right Length

A proposal should never be longer than the specified page limits. However, a proposal doesn’t have to be the maximum number of pages allowed: Say what you need to say...and no more. If you can cover everything you need to and you’re under the page limit, that’s good news for you and the reviewer. Page limits should be interpreted as “write no more than” the number of pages specified, not “write exactly the maximum number of pages allowed.” Page limits are there to cap the number of pages, they are not there to dictate how many pages your proposal absolutely must be. Sometimes applicants feel like if they don’t submit a proposal to the maximum length, they’ve somehow squandered an opportunity and reviewers will score their proposal less favorably. This is not true. Reviewers want to read a well-written proposal. If the proposal is under the page limits because it’s concise, that’s a plus. If you need all the pages allowed to cover everything you need to cover, by all means do. Otherwise, focus on writing clearly. If you come in under the page limits, that’s fine.

Set Realistic Goals and Objectives

There’s a strong temptation when writing a proposal to overstate what you could accomplish if you were to receive a grant. Funders are usually sophisticated enough to spot project goals that are unrealistic, so promising sky-high results will probably not help your cause. Regardless of whether the funder flags your targets as unattainable, you should avoid over-promising for your own sake since if your proposal is funded, you’ll be required to deliver on your promises. Your proposal needs to strike a balance between being ambitious and being feasible. You want to show that you have the skills and abilities to accomplish great things, but you don’t want to come across as inexperienced and unclear about what can realistically be accomplished with the expected grant amount.

Related to being realistic, it’s also important to be honest about your weaknesses. If your organization has had difficulties managing its programs or experienced scandals related to its finances, it’s best to take the issue head-on. Especially in the Internet age, you should assume the funder will research your organization if they’ve shortlisted you for funding.  If you think a funder could discover something about your organization that could potentially harm your chances of getting grant, you should raise and dismiss the issue in your proposal. For example, if your organization received negative publicity because beneficiaries were vocal about their dissatisfaction with the quality of your services, note that this happened and then state how you’ve addressed the problems. 

Know Your Level of Innovation

If the funder explicitly states it is looking for innovation, you’ll want to assess you proposed project carefully. Is what you are proposing really innovative? Before you say Yes, absolutely! make sure you’ve done your homework to know exactly where your idea fits in with what has happened in your field to date.  If you determine your idea is not innovative after all, it may still be worth applying to a grant opportunity if you know the funder is not weighting the innovation piece heavily. On the other hand, if you know that innovation is one of the main things the funder is looking for, unless you can truly offer something innovative, it probably is not worth your time to apply. 

Address Sustainability

Sustainability—or how the project will keep going after a grant ends—is frequently a required section in grant proposals. The section usually doesn’t have to be that long or detailed, but if it’s required, you have to treat it seriously.

For most organizations, if grant money cannot be found to keep a project going, the project risks being shut down. Unfortunately, it is not addressing sustainability to write in your application, “If you give us a grant, we can operate the project for the next X number of years. When your grant ends, we’ll find another grant.” That’s not a sustainability plan. That’s essentially an instability plan, because if you cannot find a new grant, your project will end. What the funder wants to hear is that if they give you a grant and invest their money into your project, the benefits of that investment will continue long after the grant ends. How will this happen? That’s the conundrum. It’s usually not clear.

It’s ideal if you can say your beneficiaries will no longer need your services after the grant ends because your project will have solved their underlying need for those services. If this is unrealistic (and it usually is), you can explore other options like having a government agency assume responsibility for service delivery after a grant ends. However, only mention transfer of services in your sustainability plan if you’ve actually had discussions with government representatives and can put this forward as a legitimate proposal. 

Like innovation, the funder may emphasize sustainability in the funding opportunity announcement, which is a sign that it will be weighted in the scoring of the proposals. If you do not know how your proposed project can be made sustainable, your best option is to name the options you are exploring and end by saying that if funded, you’ll solidify the sustainability plan by taking XYZ steps. 

Although it’s always good to have firm answers for every part of the proposal, funders are not naive. They do not expect applicants to have all the answers at the proposal phase. If a grant proposal requires a sustainability plan, and you’re not sure how to respond, answer the question by outlining the steps you’ll take during the project period to create one.

To Summarize

To prepare a competitive proposal, you need to look at your proposal from the perspective of the reviewers. How are they going to evaluate the proposal? What can you do to make it easier for reviewers to give your proposal a high score?

Applying the rules of good writing such as writing clearly and concisely and without jargon, combined with complying with the proposal guidelines, will help. Other things you can do include being realistic about what you can accomplish and giving reviewers enough detail so they can understand your proposal regardless of their level of expertise.