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Many grant seekers get a proposal rejected now and then. Most of them try to learn from their grant rejections and to use them as tools for improving future results.


This post discusses several ways that applicants for competitively awarded state and federal grants may use past denials of funding to ensure more success in winning future awards. Later posts will explore other more specific aspects of technical reviews.


Technical Review Forms:

State and federal grants commonly provide to all applicants the results of technical reviews. No matter the outcome, smart grant seekers will study the program review panelists’ technical review forms (TRFs) whenever they are available. Often the TRFs will note in detail a proposal’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as provide section sub-scores. In furnishing such forms to applicants, many government agencies may prove to be much more proactive than they used to be. Applicants often no longer need to request them, let alone submit a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for them.


In studying the TRFs, grant seekers may look for aspects and issues of clarity and content — both good and bad — which recur among the panelists’ comments. They may also look for hot buttons or scoring triggers in the review forms. These buttons or triggers are the repeatedly noted aspects of a proposal that most pleased reviewers or most distressed them.


Reviewers’ Hot Buttons:

Not only do grant programs have many hot buttons, so do technical reviewers. As examples: reviewers may want to see citations of data sources, not just the data; they may want to see data on the specific population to be served, not other data (e.g., census) that may or may not apply to it. Reviewers may want to see evidence of equal employment opportunity in hiring practices, not just general assurances that an applicant is an equal employment opportunity (EEO) employer; and they may want to see evidence of the reliability and validity of proposed evaluation instruments, not merely mention of some broad category of such instruments (e.g., surveys) in describing an evaluation plan.


Anticipating Reviewers’ Reactions:

By studying reviewers’ comments on TRFs — for both funded and rejected proposals — grant seekers can improve their ability to anticipate potential reviewer reactions to a proposal’s content, and they can use those insights to reduce or avoid provoking adverse reviewer reactions. Naturally, neither intra-rater reliability nor inter-rater reliability is perfectly consistent within or among proposal reviewers; yet, if a grant seeker studies its TRFs closely enough it can begin to discern which writing behaviors tend to trigger which reviewer responses, and then proceed accordingly.



  1. Check out my blog at!! I very much agree with the blog topic. I didn’t know to do this when I first started grant writing, but, on the occasions when I do get a rejection, I now always ask the program manager if he can forward me a copy of the reviewers comments. I have also had success with getting some quick, informal feedback from the program manager on the key reasons why a grant was rejected. I am proud to say that 85% of my grants have been awarded, but have found this to be a great piece of advice when a rejection is received.

    • Thanks for commenting, Micki. At 85%, you’re among the elite. Most of my posts assume readers/writers with lower rates. I can’t speak for foundations, since they vary so much, but common practice among state/federal agencies I’ve dealt with is automatically to send reviewer’s comments to all applicants; the leading practice now is to post the same comments online. As the online posting of comments becomes more the norm, as consultants rather than applicants, we’ll less often need to ask program officers for them.

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