Inside the Mind of a Grant Reader

We've all done it. We've labored for days over a grant proposal, treating it tenderly like a child, and with hope in our hearts, sent it off to fame and fortune. Then comes that gray day when the rejection letter arrives. They called our "baby" ugly!

When it comes to grant writing one thing is certain: once you send in your application, its fate is at the mercy of the readers who pick it up at the other end. At that point, there is nothing that you can do to impact the future of your grant.

However, before you place the fateful stamp on the envelope and drive to the post office, there are things you can do to improve your odds. Chief among them is looking at the grant process from the reader's point of view. By getting inside the minds of the readers during the writing process, you will craft a better proposal and ultimately up the chances of getting your "baby" funded.

Meet the Readers

Just who are these important people who have so much power over the fate of your grant? Readers for elementary and secondary educational grants typically hail from K-12 education, but sometimes they work at colleges or businesses. These volunteers are hardly ever paid for reading proposals, save the occasional travel expense. To avoid conflicts of interest, they're asked not to read proposals written by colleagues, friends, or from districts where they've worked.

The readers generally work together as a team of two or three. First they read and score the grants separately, then they meet to compare and discuss. "If the readers' scores are close, they're averaged and the averaged numbers become the overall score for the proposal," says Joyce Hinkson, a veteran grant reader and consultant for the California Department of Education. "If, on the other hand, the scores are not close and the readers cannot come to an agreement, then a third reader is brought in."

You will never know the names of your grant readers, at least not for grants from public sources such as federal or state governments. However, you may be able to determine what kind of people they are before you submit your proposal.

For example, when I was working on a Technology Innovation Challenge Grant application in 1999, my boss and I spent much time discussing what point of view we should use in the narrative. We called the U.S. Department of Education and discovered that about half the readers for this competition were classroom teachers.

Armed with that knowledge, we chose to angle the writing style for teachers. For example, we included scenarios that described what education was like today in the target schools and what would change if the grant was funded. We also included specifics, such as how we would deliver training to the teachers, and described very clearly the benefits for faculty and students. The result: the grant was funded for $9.6 million over five years.

Figure 1: Using tables to summarize data makes things easier for readers. Table 1 gives demographic data and table 2 summarizes student test scores.

Getting in Their Heads

Although sometimes you can dig up key details about your grant readers, frequently you will have no idea who they are, not even their educational backgrounds or job titles. Still, there are several ways to increase the likelihood of success.

Follow the rules. The grant readers' main job will be to determine how well you responded to the Request for Proposal. Therefore, ensure that you have responded to the RFP thoroughly and clearly. Make it easy for the grant readers to see that you've included all the requested information. To do that, organize your proposal by the subtopics outlined in the RFP. Use the same words and the same numbering system, if there is one.

Write for the reader. Consider the readers while you write. Help them follow your line of reasoning. For example, don't forget to come to conclusions. Often, grant writers give information about a topic but fail to tie all the points together and arrive at a clearly-stated conclusion. As you might expect, this makes it difficult for readers to figure out what you're trying to say.

Figure 2: This graphical element was used in a successful grant proposal to the U.S. Department of Education. This illustration helped readers comprehend the major components of a highly complex grant.

Think about what you like to read. Do you enjoy picking up a text-heavy document with no white space or devices to break up the monotony of reading? I remember once serving as a reader on a California grant competition. I was given a stack of proposals. As I thumbed through one proposal, I noticed the text was packed in densely with very little white space. I put that proposal aside and reached for the next grant in the stack. Throughout the day I kept picking up that proposal and putting it down. By the time I convinced myself to attack that proposal, I was weary and annoyed with its look and feel.

So how can you make things easier on the grant reader?

  • Use white space — even if it means cutting out some of your cherished text.
  • Include graphs, bars, tables [See Figure 1], insets, pictures, illustrations [see Figure 2], and even cartoons — unless you are not allowed to do so.
  • Use color to break up the density of the text and make the document more appealing.
  • Follow all the rules for formatting e.g., margins, line spacing, and font size.
  • Run the spell check.
  • Have someone read the draft of the proposal to make sure that you've written in a clear and direct style.

Some RFPs contain a scoring rubric that grant readers will use to evaluate your proposal [see Figure 3]. In the rubric you'll find descriptions of what to look for in every section in the grant and three to five categories of scores for you to assign to each section. If you have access to the rubric, use it to guide your writing. Note: When it comes to rubrics, it doesn't matter how outstanding you are on one section; if you omit (or are weak on) other sections, your grant will not be funded.

Figure 3: Sample Scoring Rubric.Click here for larger view.

Be a grant reader. There is no more effective way of becoming a successful grant writer than by having experience as a grant reader. You'll find a surprising number of opportunities to put yourself in the role of reader. Write, call, or e-mail a grant's contact person and ask if they need assistance. The answer to that question is often a resounding "yes!"

Rest assured you do not need to have previous experience. Part of the grant reading process will be training, including an in-depth introduction to the rubric you will use to judge the proposals. In addition, readers also practice scoring with the rubric together so their scores are more closely aligned.

Being a reader will give you extraordinary insight into the grant process. For starters, you'll learn there is no magic or supernatural wisdom shared by the readers. They are real people. Furthermore, you'll gain insight into the training and have a higher degree of sympathy for how tough the job is. Finally, you'll understand better what readers are looking for and almost certainly become a stronger grant writer.

Even if you don't have the opportunity to be a reader, you can gain valuable knowledge by simulating the process. Here are five steps for gaining that experience:

  1. Locate a complete grant proposal. You can find proposals by doing some simple Google searches or directly asking school districts to share their successfully funded proposals. A third method is to check out the proposal I've posted on my Web site:
  2. Be sure that you have the documentation for the proposal. If you don't have the rubric or RFP, it will be more difficult to understand what the funding source is asking. You can find a sample RFP at the URL cited above.
  3. Read the proposal, comparing it to the RFP or rubric. Assign the points that you think each section is worth.
  4. Decide whether or not you would fund the grant. Then conduct a Web search to determine whether the actual proposal was successfully funded.
  5. Write notes to yourself about how you would have strengthened the proposal. These observations will serve you well when you write your next grant proposal.

Carol A. Kerney, program specialist at the San Diego County Office of Education, won two Technology Innovation Challenge Grants. She's giving a grant-writing workshop at NECC in Philadelphia on June 29.