Peer reviews can lead to improved outcomes

No one wants to get that email letting you know you have been turned down for funding. A lot of time and hard work went into developing a good project and writing a great application, and you were counting on getting it to help you solve a serious problem in your community.

So what went wrong? If you submitted to a federal funding source, such as the Department of Justice, your application was probably read by several peer reviewers, people who are experts in their field and, just as importantly, understand the requirements of, and the purpose behind, the solicitation. If so, you will probably receive a Peer Review Assessment of your application that has details on both its strengths and weaknesses as perceived by each of the reviewers. It’s typically a multi-page document broken down by each of the required sections of the application (abstract, statement of the problem, etc.).

At this point, you have two options. You can file it away, vowing to never apply under that solicitation again because those reviewers have no idea what they are talking about. Or you can carefully read it, making note of what your application is missing so that, the next time the solicitation comes available, you will be able to put together a better, more fundable project.

There is a right answer, of course. I have experience with each option, and I can assure you the outcomes were very different. One Project Director took the first approach, saying that the reviewers were wrong. Actually, not just wrong, but stupid. We never applied under that solicitation again, even though it was available on a regular basis. But another Project Director saw the reviews his application received as an opportunity to submit a better application the next year. And we did. And we got it.

Rejection is never easy, so you may want to give it a week or two before taking the review out again and really seeing what has been said. Was your problem statement too vague or unfocused, your goals not in sync with the funder’s, or your overall plan not detailed enough? Did your budget include unallowable items, not enough detail on how the funds would be used, or did you add in items in that weren’t supported in the Project Narrative? All of these problems, and many others, are fixable with just a little effort on your part.

Don’t just focus on the noted weaknesses, but make sure you keep the strengths in mind as you redevelop your project. If you had a lot of strengths mentioned in important areas, you are well on your way to creating a more fundable project once you solve the other issues.

It’s important to note that the peer reviews aren’t the only criterion used by funders to determine which projects will be accepted. And you may receive conflicting reviews – one person lists your project design as a “strength” while another cites it as a “weakness.” The difference may just be in minor details, so consider both carefully.

As with just about everything that has to do with grants, there are no guarantees. But peer reviews are a useful tool that can assist you as you continue to develop stronger grant applications. 

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