As a grantmaker, funding the right applicants is crucial to the long-term success of your program. But this goes far beyond simply checking off grant requirements. It’s about choosing grantees with the greatest potential of fulfilling your organization’s mission.
To accomplish this goal, let’s look at the key tasks of the grantmaking process, while helping you build a system with best practices and efficiencies that culminate in a well-informed, unbiased selection of top candidates.
Develop Grant Guidelines
A comprehensive grant review system in place along with guidelines will help your grantees and their staff, reviewers, and other stakeholders to ensure that they have a clear understanding of how grants should be designed, applied for, and awarded.
So, what should you include in your grant guidelines? Here’s a list of recommended elements:
- Your grantmaking mission – Provide an overview of your organization’s purpose, goals, and focus areas to give readers context for this grant opportunity.
- Your envisioned outcomes/impact – Describe what you’re trying to accomplish by funding grantees. This will help potential grant seekers decide if they’re capable of meeting your expectations.
- Applicant eligibility criteria – Think about your ideal candidate. Define any restrictions or requirements for individuals or organizations, so it’s obvious whether they’d be eligible.
- Grant selection criteria – Define how your review committee will be judging submissions, so applicants can assess how competitive they would be and build a stronger case.
- How to apply – Provide all the details about the application process
- Decision-making timeline – Provide key dates, such as submission deadlines, interviews, review sessions, final selection, and disbursement of funds.
In addition to the above, it’s also helpful to have staff and the reviewers read the guidelines and suggest a set of frequently asked questions with a fresh pair of eyes. You may also want to include some examples of projects you’ve funded in the past if that would clarify what you’re funding in this cycle.
Assemble and Prepare Your Review Committee
Now that you’ve clearly defined your grant program, let’s turn our attention to building a qualified, engaged committee of grant reviewers. Here are a few ways you can improve your selection and management of these important individuals:
- Choose a diverse slate of reviewers – Seek out people who represent different points of view or life experiences, so your evaluations are enriched. Make sure they have an understanding of your organization’s focus areas and can knowledgeably review the materials.
- Identify conflicts of interest – To ensure the integrity of your grant program, make a list of potential conflicts, and confirm with each potential reviewer.
- Create a grants review guide – Using the grants guidelines as a starting point, provide your reviewers with everything they need to be successful in their role. For example, define time commitments, explain how to access applications, and provide tips for evaluating applicants fairly and accurately.
These best practices will strengthen the grant review process, resulting in better decisions that align with your grant program’s goals.
Create the Application
While clarifying your grant program requirements is critical, it’s equally important to ask the right grant application questions and build a relationship with applicants. You want staff and reviewers to get a full picture of their enthusiasm, potential, and talents.
So, what questions should you ask? Go back to your grant guidelines and work backward.
- Confirm their eligibility by setting up a qualifying quiz before they start the application.
- Get a sense of their commitment to your mission and values by asking why they applied.
- Request references or case studies to demonstrate their potential to succeed.
- Look at your selection criteria – what’s at the top of the list? Ask questions that allow the applicant to show the qualities, experience, and passion you’re seeking.
Here are a few tips to draw out the best answers from your applicants.
- Check for clarity – Have a neutral third party review your questions. Is anything unclear? Are you using jargon or acronyms they may not understand?
- Tell them why you’re asking – Providing context or background information to some of your questions will help the applicant give a more relevant reply.
- Define limits – If you want to keep answers to a certain length, give the applicant an idea of how long it should be, or if you’re using an online application, set character limits.
- Expand their options – If it’s a multiple-choice question, give the option of “Other-explain.”
- Incorporate multi-media responses – Sometimes, words aren’t enough. Sharing videos and images can help an applicant express their best answer.
- Allow for an online account – Consider using grant management software. Not only can users return to their incomplete application to enhance their answers, but they can also see status updates once submitted.
Make a Grant Award Decision
You’ve defined the grant guidelines, prepped your review team, and created an application that’s easy to use and captures the data you need. You’re on your way to a great grant-awarding decision. But there are still a few more ways you can improve your grant review process:
- Incorporate site visits and interviews – While you’d probably only consider this for finalists, an in-person tour or interview allows grant applicants a chance to show off a program in a way that an online application cannot. If that’s not possible, video calls are the next best thing.
- Experiment with a workshop – Many grantmakers are engaging applicants in the same way a job candidate might complete a test assignment. Think about how you might be better able to evaluate grantees if you could meet in person, collaborating on their pitch.
- Develop a clear scoring system – In most cases, scoring each criterion requires something more nuanced than yes or no. The easiest way to do this is by using a numerical scoring system. However, being clear about definitions is crucial. Make sure this is included in your grant reviewer’s guide and you’re available to answer any questions.
- Remove the potential for bias – To ensure equitable grantmaking, remove demographic information from the applications, so there’s no chance for unconscious biases to affect the results.
The above suggestions will improve the quality of your review, but it’s also helpful to think about efficiency. How can you make it easier for reviewers to do their job?
- Create two rounds of reviews – Create a qualifying quiz to make sure only qualified grantees submit an application. Make sure you’re focusing valuable reviewer time on your most competitive applicants by having staff weed out lower-ranking proposals.
- Provide an online portal – With a grant management system, reviewers can access everything they need in one place – no lost email chains and endless attachments. Plus, they can toggle between the scorecard and the application, making reviews fast and easy.
The grant review process wouldn’t be complete without looking back to constantly improve. How did your past grantees perform? Did they meet the goals set out in their application? Did their work move your organization toward its grantmaking vision?
A well-designed grant report will give you the information necessary to make even stronger award decisions in the future. While documenting quantitative goals is important, it’s easy to get stuck there and miss greater insights. Here are some outside-the-box ideas for digging deeper.
- Build feedback loops – Instead of a static final report, create continuous conversations with your grantees that aren’t time-consuming. With grant management software, you can easily email your grantees with a quick question or survey. This keeps the data all in one place when you want to assess their fit with your grant program.
- Don’t make it one-size-fits-all – If you have a standard grant report, think about how you could get more relevant information if you tailored some of the questions to their project, specifically.
As a grantmaker, you want to be sure your funding goes as far as possible and makes the most impact. By incorporating these best practices, your organization can feel confident that they’ve fulfilled its promise to continuously strive toward this goal.
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