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Lining Up Your Proposals for Success

Each year for more than a decade, I have had the privilege of serving as a peer reviewer in a wide range of government grant competitions. As a grant writer, this opportunity has allowed me to be a part of the other side of the process and learn how to make my own proposals more appealing to reviewers. While it would be difficult to identify the most common mistake I have seen as a reviewer, there is a common theme I see in the errors made in proposals that are not funded: quite often, the sections of those proposals do not connect or line up with one another.

Every activity should support the achievement of an objective, the achievement of every objective should yield and outcome, and outcomes should represent some type of change related to the need for a proposed project. When it is not apparent how these elements line up with each other, you are at risk for losing points because it leaves reviewers with unanswered questions. (Never leave a reviewer with unanswered questions.)

You job is to tie it all together. Consider the examples below from a reviewer's perspective.

EXAMPLE 1: In the budget narrative for a grant to support literacy programs, the applicant allocated almost 30% of the total amount requested to fitness equipment for a wellness program without any mention of the wellness program or activity that required fitness equipment in the application narrative.

WHAT'S THE PROBLEM? The budget narrative is a justification for the expenses associated the activities described in the grant narrative. Every expense must be explained so that it is apparent that grant funds will be used to support activities that help achieve specific objectives and outcomes.

EXAMPLE 2: In the project description for a grant proposal to support after-school programming to improve literacy, the applicant (a school district) described how services would be provided to students by collaborating with a mental health service organization as part of the proposed project.

WHAT'S THE PROBLEM? In its narrative, the applicant did not: 1) describe a need for mental health services; 2) describe any activities related to mental health services; or 3) state objectives or outcomes related to mental health. The problem is not that the applicant plans to provide these services, but that they do not explain how these services fit with or support their efforts related to improving literacy.

EXAMPLE 3: In a project description for a grant proposal to support literacy, the applicant provided a detailed description of its current curriculum, including data that supported its effectiveness. In the budget narrative, the applicant included expenses to purchase the curriculum and staff training.

WHAT'S THE PROBLEM? It was not clear why the applicant was requesting grant funding. The applicant had an effective curriculum in place and did not state in its description that it intended to replace that curriculum. For the same reason, it was unclear why staff training was needed. The goals and objectives stated by the applicant were reasonable and the statement of need did not make apparent that additional resources were necessary to achieve the desired outcomes. Simply put, the applicant made a convincing case that it did not need the grant because there did not seem to be any reason to support the activities (i.e., purchasing a curriculum and training staff, when the current 
programming was effective at achieving the desired outcomes). My guess in this case would be that the intent of the applicant was to communicate that there was some need for improvement in their programming, but the sections of their proposal did not align to tell that story to reviewers.

The examples above are a little more obvious than most of the errors I have seen as a result of proposal sections not aligning with one another. However, even the most subtle mistakes can be easily spotted by experienced reviewers. So, what can you do to avoid making this type of mistake?

  1. Use the attached Proposal Alignment Grid as a planning tool when developing your proposals. It helps you make sure everything is lined up.
  2. After you have drafted your proposal, work backward from the budget and ask yourself if all of your expenses can be connected directly to an activity that supports an objective. If you have expenses in your budget that you cannot ultimately link to an objective, then a reviewer might question why that expense is necessary.
  3. Repeat Step 2 any time that you make revisions to your proposal. If your proposal is revised three times after you initially draft it and there are other people involved in the revision process, the seemingly minor changes that were made might result in some disconnect between sections. Double check to certain this does not happen.


By: Laura Sherwin
On: 05/31/2016 15:43:29
The article refers to an "attached proposal alignment grid," but I did not see an attachment. Please provide info on how to obtain the attachment. Thank you.
By: Victoria Carter
On: 05/31/2016 16:18:35
This was great information! Thanks so much for sharing.

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