How to Help Reviewers Evaluate Government Grant Proposals

Government evaluators of grant proposals rely on a mental toolbox of rapid and fairly simple techniques to decide which proposals to recommend for funding.  Because evaluators use predictable mental techniques to evaluate proposals, grant professionals should develop proposals that reviewers can clearly understand and can extract information quickly, effortlessly, and with as little mental effort as possible. Good proposals that are easy to evaluate are more likely to be funded than great proposals that are difficult to evaluate.

To help evaluators review your proposal quickly and effortless, take these steps:

  • Develop a Compliance Matrix.  By developing a detailed tabular proposal compliance matrix that matches the grant requirements to proposal sections and pages, reviewers have a clear, logical, and easy-to-understand road map to demonstrate compliance with the grant guidelines and to find information easily.
  • Use the Principles of Good Informational Design.  Government grant reviewers are very much interested in the design of proposals because that greatly affects their ability to gather and process information. Consequently, government grant proposals should adhere to the following principles of good information design to make it easy for evaluators quickly to find and understand the information that interests them.
    • Create interest by breaking the expected rectangular design of the proposal page with a ragged right justification, lists and graphics, tables, headings that stand out, visuals, and headers and footers.
    • Meet expectations by organizing your proposal to reflect the grant guidelines or the evaluation criteria.
    • Reveal structure by including an Executive Summary, a Table of Contents, a Compliance Matrix, frequent headings, and topic sentences at the beginning of paragraphs.
    • Facilitate navigation with page and section numbers and letters, headers and footers, and chapter and section titles.
    • Create manageable chunks of information by breaking the proposal narrative into small units and by grouping related information together.
    • Prioritize information by using different font sizes, font weights, indentation, and numbering systems.
    • Differentiate information types with themes, section summaries, lists, captions, sidebars, and visuals.
  • Use Good Visual Explanations.  Using visual images effectively is an important element of persuasive proposals because numerous studies have demonstrated that good visuals improve learning and retention and reduce the amount of time needed to explain complex ideas. Visual displays of information – charts, graphs, diagrams, tables, timelines, and pictures – should show cause and effect, ensure that proper comparisons are made, and emphasize the themes and goals of the proposal narrative.
  • Use Recognition to Organize the Proposal’s Structure and Content.  Nothing is simpler and more direct than recognizing and recalling relevant cues, which seems perfectly tailored to the evaluation of grant proposals.  Grant applicants should:
    • Organize information by (1) structuring the proposal according to the grant guidelines; (2) discussing major points in decreasing order of importance;
    • (3) summarizing major points and benefits throughout the proposal; and (4) focusing on the needs and mission of the government agency.
    • Develop no more than a few major theme statements that are directly linked to the evaluation criteria and use them to organize the content of the proposal.
    • Ensure that all major theme statements have solutions, benefits, and proof.
    • Write the Executive Summary for non-technical reviewers.
    • Link features and benefits to the evaluation criteria.
    • Write simply and clearly. Use short sentences and paragraphs. Use plenty of white space. Use the active voice.
    • Use plenty of bulleted and numbered lists to make important points.
    • Use headings with the exact wording from the grant guidelines.
    • Use visuals to emphasize benefits, features, and major themes.

The challenge for grant proposal professionals is to encourage reviewers to use simple decision-making processes. Although this approach appears straightforward, it may be hard to accomplish because nonprofit government proposals are often complex.

Proposals should be designed so that reviewers can evaluate them fast, frugally, and with as little mental effort as possible. Sometimes, as the research on decision-making demonstrates, less is more.

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