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All’s Well That Ends Well: A Tale of Hope on the Grant Writing Trail

All’s Well That Ends Well is one of Shakespeare’s “problem comedies” that may actually be a tragedy, and it comes to mind as an apropos title for a comedic tale that illustrates one of the many odd aspects of grant writing: why there is little reason to read comments provided by reviewers regarding an unfunded federal proposal*. Such comments, which may be mildly amusing or maddeningly frustrating to read, are usually useless in terms of improving the proposal for another submission. A long-time client’s experience demonstrates this.

Faithful readers will have followed Jake’s two-part deconstruction of the wondrous CBAE RFP, “What to do When You Still Must Fight Through a Poorly Organized RFP: Part II of a Case Study On the Community-Based Abstinence Education Program RFP.” This RFP  has been more or less the same for the last several years and pretty much sums up everything that is wrong with most federal RFP processes. Consequently, when a client called last week to discuss a possible new assignment, I was tickled to learn that their agency received a CBAE grant this year.

We wrote their CBAE proposal last year, which was not funded. The client received very negative reviewer comments on the ’07 proposal. Reviewers hated it. My advice to the client at that time was to ignore the comments and submit the proposal again this year. They submitted a proposal this year, virtually unchanged from the one that was trashed, and they were funded.

The primary reason for not taking reviewer comments seriously is the nature of the people reviewing it. Any proposal is read at a point in time by a set of reviewers, who are likely reading other proposals submitted for the same competition and may or may not be interested in the task at hand.

For example, if the proposal is read by five peer reviewers brought to D.C. by DHHS, one may be hung over from bar hopping the night before in Georgetown, one may be anxious to meet their Aunt Martha for dinner, a third may be itching to get to the Air and Space Museum before it closes, and two might be vaguely interested in the review process. And, of the last two, one may have gotten a speeding ticket in your jurisdiction 20 years ago and hates the city. Or, the proposals could be read by federal zombies**, who are disinterested in everything placed before their noses other than donuts. In other words, one has no control over who reviews proposals and what kind of mood they might be in.

Also, just like with job interviews, in which the time of day may make all the difference, a proposal read first thing in the morning by bright-eyed reviewers will likely fare differently than one read by the same bleary group just before the cocktail hour. If that weren’t enough, the values of one reviewer one year might differ greatly from the values of another reviewer another year, and the priorities of the agency might shift slightly from year to year, meaning that a proposal that they hate one year they might love the next. If you submit a complete, well-written, and technically correct proposal, you’ve done as much as you can, and the vagaries of the reviewer can doom or save your application.

It’s pointless to agonize over grant reviewer comments. When our clients send them to us, we look at them briefly to see if there was something obviously wrong with the proposal, but usually there are either just points assigned to various sections or cryptic comments like, “collaboration not demonstrated,” even though there were ten letters of collaboration attached, a list of partners included in the narrative, etc. Sometimes reviewer comments can be either unintentionally hilarious or tragic, depending on your point of view, which brings us back to the Bard.

A case in point: About eight years ago, we wrote a proposal to the Administration for Native Americans (ANA) Social and Economic Development Strategies (SEDS) program on behalf of an Alaskan Native village north of the Arctic Circle for a social development project. The proposal was not funded and the client faxed the review comments to us. Imagine our surprise when the comments talked about the poorly developed project concept of trying to attract tourists to a remote desert area in Arizona! Clearly, the reviewers mixed up at least two proposals and associated the wrong comments with the proposal we had written. We advised our clients to contact ANA, which, in the true spirit of helping vulnerable Alaskan Natives, refused to accept an appeal for what was obviously a major error. Perhaps a better Shakespeare title for this post would be Love’s Labour’s Lost.

* As the King says, perhaps ironically, at the end of the play, “All yet seems well, and if it end so meet [fittingly], / The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet.”

** While not generally a fan of zombie movies, the most fun iteration in recent years is certainly Shaun of the Dead in which the eponymous hero has trouble at first distinguishing his slacker friends from zombies rising from the grave like grant reviewers emerging from the sub-basement at DHHS after a long day of reading proposals and stampeding to the closest Happy Hour.

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