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How-to Library • Featuring articles from past issues of Contributions

Tales from the Dark Side
The eye-opening experience of judging others’ grant proposals

by Martin John Brown

If you’ve never been tempted by the dark side of grantsmanship – the side that gives out money, rather than asks for it – your training as a development officer is not complete.

What earnest young nonprofiteer, outwardly cynical but inwardly flush with idealism, wouldn’t secretly tremble at the semi-godlike prospect of judging proposals and directing resources? In fact, the “secret tremble test” is probably a pretty good evaluation of whether you have any dreaminess left in your nonprofit soul.

If a call to serve on a committee that judges proposals and awards grants makes you raise your hand, even ever-so-sheepishly, then you probably still believe grants, and your passion for the community, can make a difference. If your hands don’t move a millimeter, you’re either burned out or one cold fish.

It is surprisingly easy to get involved with the dark side. Indeed, it seems like the devil waits at every street corner, ready to whisk you into the woods for a shameful debauch. My local United Way has funds distributed by volunteer committees, and the federal government has numerous opportunities to score proposals for agency grants. You’ll find a little time on the dark side will give you savvy – and hopefully, sympathy for the devil – when you’re back in the light.

Young Goodman Stimson

The first time I served on a grant evaluation committee was a shock. I can’t be too specific due to confidentiality obligations, but I will say it was a federal grant competition and the proposals came from nonprofits and educators. The topic was “The Big Issue.”

There were two other reviewers on my committee, but we met only by conference call. “Stimson” sounded like a guy who wore a tie over a short-sleeve polyester shirt, and “Josie” had a luxuriant Southern drawl. Everyone was serious. No proposal was ever dismissed for personal or political reasons. This was yet another grant seeking situation where “who you know” didn’t matter.

As the grant review cart drew us into the murky woods, I had some charming, naïve expectations. There were twelve proposals to review. I planned to study the basic logic of each one, evaluating how well each applicant knew their community’s needs regarding The Big Issue, and how realistic the proposed plan of action was as a way of addressing those needs.

That illusion was immediately smashed, and its shards left to decay in the fallen leaves. At least three of the twelve proposals were so badly written it was literally impossible to determine what actions they proposed to take. Sometimes sentences ended in mid-run. Sometimes bullet points appeared without a header. Once a whole section was missing.

It was exhausting to read this kind of work. In desperation I started examining the budget first. Since the budget expressed how grant money would be utilized, I reasoned it would help me understand what the applicant truly planned to do. But often budget items had no obvious relation to the narrative.

It was sad to score these proposals poorly, because these applicants seemed to have an authentic need for help. Mercy on these rustic grant writers, who stayed up all night before the deadline, or lacked even a friend to give the proposal a quick read! They had used the cathartic mode of grant seeking, and that is generally a ticket to disappointment.

Catch-22 ad infinitum

By this point something else was shaking my faith. The confusion in those proposals wasn’t entirely the applicants’ faults.

Applicants were required to provide information in an order that was at best awkward and at worst illogical. It made little sense to, say, describe project evaluation before describing the project itself (since project activities would inevitably be mentioned in the evaluation section). As a result proposals were either confusing or redundant, the textual counterparts of dogs chasing their tails.

While the general goal of the grantmaking program was admirably clear, the published scoring criteria formed an Escher-esque maze of contradictions. Each criterium had its own baby sub-criteria, and each level of the hierarchy was constrained by the next. It was like being asked to judge a boxing match by looking only at the footwork, to judge the footwork by looking only at shoe style, and to judge shoe style by looking only at the tips of the laces. A proposal that scored perfectly on all the subcriteria would be extremely unlikely, in my opinion, to strongly meet the general purpose of the grant-making program.

This situation produced stomach-wracking agonies for conscientious reviewers like us. It was worst for Stimson, who was a stickler for detail, and could not resolve the logical quandries, and easiest on Josie, whose reviewing style was more emotional. But we all had to adapt. There was soon an unspoken subtext to our discussions. We were evaluating proposals based on our own impulses, and using the scoring system to express conclusions we had already made. It was technically improper, but it was the only way to stay sane.

The miasma of irrelevance

Another three proposals gave some relief. They had obviously been written by professionals, and expressed comprehensible needs and actions related to The Big Issue. However, it was painful to observe these same applicants hadn’t really thought their situations out. Instead, they were just trying to sound impressive.

One rhetorical gambit was grandstanding. “Our community is at maximal risk regarding The Big Issue,” a proposal might say impressively, then fail to provide equally impressive evidence, such as “79 percent of our population are at risk, according to An Important Journal.”

Grandstanding was often mixed with bureaucratese. “Under the grant, we plan to implement a task assignment to supervise an implementation scheme,” a proposal might say. Such sentences made it unclear meaningful action would take place. “We will hire a full-time project manager,” would have scored better with me.

Even professional grant writers forget the basics. A quality proposal will nearly always make a logical, compelling connection among three subjects: the community’s needs, the applicant’s abilities, and the funder’s demonstrated interests. Language that obscures those connections is worse than dull: it suggests there aren’t really any connections at all.

The flaunting of the guidelines

Despite the spiritual buffeting, I still had some faith left. So far I had given applicants low scores because of their poor plans or arguments; I had never doubted the decency of their intentions. Then three wicked proposals zoomed out of the darkness like flying buzz saws.

One thing about this grant competition was clear and consistent through the whole rat-maze of guidelines and criteria: grants were not primarily intended to purchase equipment. Any equipment had to be part of a comprehensive plan for treating The Big Issue.

These three proposals broke that rule. While the narratives described people-oriented work, the budgets had 50-90 percent of grant funds allocated towards equipment purchases which were largely unexplained, and certainly unconvincing as part of a comprehensive plan.

These attempts to slip equipment through didn’t fool anybody. Worse, they revealed the applicants saw themselves more as potential lottery winners than as equal partners in the common cause of treating The Big Issue.

My head spun. I was robbed of my last illusion, and fell into the blackness of denial.

The short list

How I got home I don’t know. But when I woke up, laying forgotten on the floor were the final three proposals. I paged through them dumbly. They weren’t necessarily the longest proposals, or the ones that served the greatest number of people, or the ones with umpteen professional advisers. Still they demonstrated a clear understanding of the community’s needs regarding The Big Issue, had a logical plan of action for addressing those needs, and made a request within the competition guidelines.

In short, these three were worthy of being funded. I checked back a few months later and found one of this short list had indeed received hundreds of thousands of dollars.

I breathed a little easier. As a grant seeker, I learned once again it wasn’t that hard to make the short list. All I needed to do was avoid dumb mistakes typical of 75 percent of the competition.

My faith in grantmaking, as a curiously American way of making the world better, was returning too. But my hair showed a streak of gray that has not left it since. I may keep my hands under the table for a while.

Martin is coauthor (with Larissa Golden Brown) of Demystifying Grant Seeking: what you really need to do to get grant. More information and advice is available from their web site, brownandbrown.tv.

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