Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Federal Grant Selection Processes: Random or Fair?

I thoroughly understand that federal grant makers want applicants to be concise in their writing.  I also understand that having page limitations and formatting requirements helps to level the playing field so everyone is bound by similar restrictions.

Over the years I have witnessed formatting requirements and page limitations become more and more restrictive in an effort to prevent an unfair advantage to those who are more skilled at the manipulation of text through MS Word and other word processing programs.

The problem is that these restrictions have now reached the point of being so ridiculous that while the playing field may be level, it has become nearly impossible in some competitions to provide enough information to help the readers make a truly informed choice. Yes, the playing field is level now....we all have the same opportunity to be randomly chosen, almost by chance, because we cant really differentiate ourselves anymore.

Don't misunderstand.  There is still a clear line of differentiation between good grant narratives and poor ones. But that's not where the problem lies.  In today's competitive grant environment, when all of the funded grants in a competition will score at least 96 out of 100 points (anything above 90 - 92 would be considered excellent), a single point can make the difference between success and failure. If there are 100 proposals that can be considered excellent, and only 50 are being funded, it's critical to give readers enough information to fairly differentiate between those proposals.  Without enough that information, it's like a lottery. Sure, there is a "process" for selection, but that process yields the same result as if the the funded proposals had been selected by chance from among the high quality applications.

I'm working on a grant now that has a 25 page limit (double-spaced) for the narrative. In that 25 pages, we are asked to "thoroughly address" 7 scoring criteria and 22 sub-criteria. The bottom line is that some will completely fail at the task; however, there will be hundreds of proposals that score well (over 94), but the page limitation is so restrictive that no one will be able to thoroughly address all the criteria.

So it's a crap shoot. If you get lenient readers who really like your core ideas, you're in.  If you get very detail oriented readers who focus on the detail rather than the big picture, you're done.

And all it will take is a single point to make the difference.

If you're funded, you'll get the money (which is great!), as well as the praise of your colleagues for your grant writing skills.  If you're not funded, you'll spend time trying to figure out what you did wrong, when in reality your proposal might have been better than some that were funded.

This is a way to select applicants to fund, but is it the best way?

If applicants were allowed to just say what they need to say in response to the scoring criteria, readers would actually have enough information to make an informed decision.  There could be suggested page limitations,and savvy writers would know that submitting too much is not in your best interest because you'll just lose the readers' attention. That would really force applicants to think carefully about their proposals.

In the current competition I'm working on, there will be millions of dollars worth of professional time invested in the grant preparation process.  Most of that investment will be taxpayer money because public agencies (school districts) are competing for this grant. The sad part is that most of that investment will be wasted because the majority of the grants that are submitted will not be funded.  All of those hours could have been spent helping kids.

If this kind of speculative investment must be made to compete for funding, at least make it a fair process and give the readers enough information to make an informed choice.Otherwise, just save all the time and money that folks spend on proposal preparation and just flip a coin.


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About Creative Resources & Research

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Woodland, CA, United States
Creative Resources and Research is a consulting firm specializing in grant writing, grant seeking, program evaluation and professional development training. We have worked with hundreds of clients including public and private schools, school districts, universities, non-profit organizations, and social service agencies throughout California, securing over $155 million from federal, state and private foundation funding sources over the past decade. Our primary grant writers and program evaluators have over 50 years of combined experience in the education and social services fields. At CRR we prefer a personal approach to the clients we work with; by developing long term relationships, we are better suited to match client’s needs with available funding sources. We provide a variety of services to help assist you, including grant writing, evaluation consulting, professional development opportunities, and workshops.