Help From the Other Side of the Table

As a former program officer, I know how hard it is to select worthy grant recipients. The competition is fierce, and the dollars are never enough. As a nonprofit, you work hard to put together your application, write a great proposal, submit all of the requested materials and make your request. And then, you wait to find out whether or not you were funded. To most applicants, the standing question is, “What can I do to improve my application?”

Decline. It is what program officers do most. 

Program officers are rooting for their grant seekers to succeed, but too many nonprofits don’t seem to realize that a program officer turns down many more requests than they fund. In a fundamental way, one of the primary jobs of a program officer is to say no to grant seekers, even those who submit strong proposals.  It is a simple fact that there are more proposals than available funding, making winnowing down the number of contenders one of the primary jobs of the grant reviewer.

In a sense, as a nonprofit leader, your job is to help the program officers see the strengths and beauty of your request, not its flaws or challenges. Making it past the initial cuts increases your chances of receiving funding. At the end of the review process, you want your proposal to be one of the few remaining under consideration in the room where decisions are being made.

The View From the Other Side of the Table.

Reading proposals is different from creating them. Program Officers look at proposals from a critical point of view. While they are reading to find the next great project to invest in, they are simultaneously looking for proposals that don’t resonate or work well within the guidelines. Reading critically is a program officer’s job, and though many nonprofits feel they have submitted a dynamite proposal, often there is a disconnect between the request and the the program officer’s review.

So, what should a grant seekers do to strengthen their proposals?

Here is a Top 10 Actions that I have collected over the years that you can implement to strengthen your opportunities for a grant award.

  1. Be rigorous in following the format and guidelines of the funder. Make sure you answer all of the questions, in order.
  2. Seek to address critical questions before a reviewer has to ask them, thus eliminating doubt and increasing your chances of a favorable review.
  3. Have a strong vision for how their investment in your organization/program will meet the funder’s mission and goals.
  4. Be realistic about what your nonprofit does and what it can achieve. Nothing rings more hollow than nearly impossible outcomes and unrealistic goals.
  5. Have a strong request that is tied to an easy to understand budget. Draw a clear line between your narrative and your request. In my experience, this is one of the key reasons for proposals to be declined.
  6. Keep your message clear and concise. Remember, you don’t have a program officer’s attention span for very long, be sure to hook them in early.
  7. Keep flaws out of your application. Mistakes make it easy for the program officer to start asking hard questions. The more issues or questions a reviewer has, the more doubt creeps in about your proposal — even if it is a strong request. When there are lots of unanswered questions or clear mistakes (especially grammar and spelling errors!), the review tends to be more negative.
  8. Keep the reader engaged. Dull writing makes it easy for the reader to shut down — and reducing your chances for a positive review. Program Officers are often reading large stacks of proposals over a short period of time. If you are the 25th proposal you want your writing to be spirited and exciting to read. 
  9. Have your proposal read by a disinterested, third-party, reviewer. You may have  a talented grant writer, but when it comes to reviewing your own material, honesty is your friend. It is difficult for insiders from your organization to have enough objectivity, as they are often too close to the material.
  10. Talk to the program officer. After being declined, if available, before hand, if possible. Try to understand the issues behind reasons for the outcome (even if you get the award). Seek advice on how to improve not just the one application, but your overall approach.

Seems easy enough, but we all recognize that it can be a challenge. To see further explanation of these actions, visit the Services page of Thinking Outside.

 This is where Thinking Outside can help. Thinking Outside is affiliated with other former program officers that come from a broad range of backgrounds and sectors. As former program officers, we offer a rigorous outside review of your work and read your material from the perspective of a funder..

Our commodity is Honesty. Few program officers will be completely open, honest and, well, blunt, about your proposals. Thinking Outside will provide you with an honest opinion, in a supportive way, that strengthens your request, and sets you up for success.

I look forward to talking with you.


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