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  • Writer's pictureRachel Niemczyk

7 Lessons Learned as a NJ Peer Reviewer

Approved and Declined stamps.
Image by Tayeb MEZAHDIA from Pixabay

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: one of the best ways to gain professional development experience as a grant writer is to become a grant reviewer. Last June I served as a peer reviewer for NJ’s OFBI (Office of Faith Based Initiatives) and it was an eye-opening experience! My first time on the other side of the grant table taught me a lot, and I’m sharing what I’ve learned with you all today. I hope it helps you write an award winning grant!

1. The narrative should tell the story of how all the budget items are implemented in the program. This is crucial and something I just didn’t understand before being a reviewer. It seems like the narrative and budget don’t have much to do with each other and can be created separately, but they need to be created together and match up with each other perfectly. If it’s mentioned in the narrative it should be a line item in the budget and vice versa. If the narrative and budget don’t line up it comes across as sloppy work at best and demonstrates an unpreparedness to execute the program at worst.

2. You can’t assume funders know anything about you or your organization. As a peer reviewer I wasn’t allowed to look up anything about the organization or program in question to review the grants. I could only use what was in the application itself. That means if it’s not in the grant application, it doesn’t count in a reviewer’s mind. If you need help figuring out what to include, have someone completely unfamiliar with the program read over your application. They’ll be able to point out things that - because of your familiarity with the program - you take for granted as a known fact. (These details can range from partner organizations and years the program has been operational to media attention and your standing in the community.)

3. Be very deliberate about which information goes in each section of the grant application. When grants have word or character limits, it can be tempting to include some of the answer from one section in a different one; that way you meet all the application restrictions but still have the requested info present. This does not work with NJ state grants! NJ grants are graded on a point system, and those points are distributed depending on how well the question was answered in the appropriate section. Even if you answer the question in a different section of the grant you won’t get points for it. Do that consistently throughout the grant and it doesn’t matter how well written the narrative was - you will have an overall lower score.

4. Don’t submit half formed program plans in the application! When I was reviewing grants there were so many applications where the funds were needed to hire staff who could do the work to create a more detailed plan that it wasn’t funny. As someone who works with nonprofits I get it; you’re overworked and understaffed so you need to bring on others to lighten the load. The problem is, without a solid plan from the beginning you come across as untrustworthy to funders. They don’t know if you'll be able to hire someone, let alone how that will affect program plans, and assume their money will be wasted. Before applying make sure you have a program designed, a plan to implement the program, research to show why it will be successful, and a list of all the materials/resources needed for the program to be operational. Show which resources are already secured and which you are currently fundraising for (including the potential source of revenue for that resource) and you’ll come across better for it.

5. Avoid having all of the budget going towards program staff salary. I know programs require people to work, and people need salaries to make a living, but funders really don’t like it when money goes towards salaries instead of financial aid, program materials, transportation costs, etc. Whenever possible, try to divide the program request funds equally between salary and other costs, or even put more request money towards those other costs.

6. Consistency is key across all submission material. If you have to include program staff summaries, make sure those staff members and their responsibilities are mentioned in both the narrative and budget. If you partner with other organizations, make sure you have a MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) with every partner organization outlining individual responsibilities. Whatever details you mention in the narrative should also be in the logic model and budget. The more consistent you are, the more capable and prepared you come across to funders.

7. Funders are investors and judge your program by how sound of an investment it would be. They don’t want their money to go towards a program that won’t be implemented or will fail shortly after launching. They want the program associated with their funding to thrive and receive positive media attention. This means your project needs to have a strong sustainability plan. The more sources of funding you have for your program - aside from grants - the more likely you are to succeed because your program doesn’t depend on their funds to operate. They’ll want their organization associated with you because you’re spending the money wisely, are planning for the future, and will more likely than not succeed with or without their help.

I hope the knowledge gained from my grant reviewing experience helps you write your next award winning state grant! Have you ever served as a grant reviewer before? Share your experiences in the comments below so we can all learn from each other!

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Thanks for reading, and I'll see you next week with another article!

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