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How the Army is turning grants defeat into victory

IN every survey we've ever done, grantseekers have said the most annoying thing about applications is a lack of, or poor, feedback from grantmakers.

Grants surveys over more than 10 years have repeatedly highlighted pleas from grantseekers for details about why they had failed to win a grant. They are often instead left frustrated by unhelpful generic responses.

While things have improved, an astonishing 46% of grantseekers surveyed in 2016 still rated grantmakers as "bad" with feedback.

On the plus side, some agencies have been working hard to improve their performance, with excellent results, and were happy to share their experience at the feedback "hot spot" session at this year's Grantmaking in Australia Conference.

Quick takeaways

  • Encourage assessors to use criticism in terms you're prepared to share
  • Consider providing applicants ways to improve their future pitches
  • If you're using SmartyGrants, use the grants management tool's assessment forms to record assessors' comments and the reports and mailout functions to generate feedback for applicants
  • Be prepared to take on internal politics and senior managers to push for better feedback

Helping applicants improve their pitch

One organisation you'd rightfully expect to have a strong focus on learning from the past would be the Australian Army History Unit, which provides grants for historical projects as part of its work.

The unit's Dr Andrew Richardson said grants funds were not always fully spent in this specialist field. He said better feedback meant improving future applications, and more satisfied grantseekers.

"Despite our long turnaround times for assessing grant applications, we've had people actually ring back and thank us for our feedback. That's as a result of our structured responses."

That approach includes providing a template for assessors. They then can provide rejection letters that include detailed suggestions about how grantseekers can improve future applications.

The agency has the advantage of employing assessors highly motivated to be involved, such as university lecturers, who volunteer their expert time.

"We employ two assessors for each application and provide detailed responses, including specific suggestions about how they could frame future bids," Dr Richardson said.

Army HistoryAussie diggers playing two-up near the front at Ypres in December 1917.

Use the tools at your disposal

One delegate noted that the SmartyGrants system allows this very kind of note-taking and commentary. It allows internal notes to be separated from the official statements sent to grantseekers.

Another grantmaker described how they had introduced a new "standard field" into their SmartyGrants system title "final assessors' comments". This summarised the views of three separate assessors into a single paragraph.

Those responses were available to both successful and unsuccessful applicants, and were presented simply: "Below is a summation of what the assessors wanted to say to you."

Dejected about rejection

Despite the plethora of evidence that the provision of feedback benefits both grantseekers and grantmakers, many grantmakers continue to be bound by old methods of doing things, producing standard rejection letters written as "weasel words", as some put it, aimed at giving away little about organisational rationale.

"Our letters are sent out with the standard generic line about there being 'too many high quality proposals etc.'," one delegate said.

Despite being charged with handling applications, many remain in the dark about management decisions to avoid putting reasons in writing, or said it was "just a historic thing".

Inviting rejected recipients to "please call the grants team for further information" often meant inviting difficult phone calls where administrators had to justify decisions they hadn't made.

That is reason enough for some to reform the process.

But sometimes not revealing reasons to grant recipients was also to protect rejected grant recipients from unpleasant assessments, some "so brutally honest that it wasn't constructive".

Steps toward better responses

Most in the group agreed a combination of actions was needed for improvement, with suggestions including:
  • adjusting assessment forms to provide space for feedback;
  • publishing details of successful projects;
  • alerting assessors to the fact their comments would be used in responses, ensuring appropriately worded comments are made;
  • to consider using professional assessors in applications;
  • facing the challenging task of engaging in the political battle for a change in culture; and,
  • seeking greater transparency in assessment, which could include discouraging elected officials becoming de facto decision makers, through chairing assessment panels for instance.

Good, early communication is key

One community development team received far more positive reviews about its grants after ensuring community groups contacted the council before applications.

Where previously in one round 40 of 120 applicants were ruled ineligible, that figure was now far more manageable, and the council had committed to assisting with applications.

Another authority, working with a very diverse community, had similarly reached out to help groups before they applied.

"A lot of groups come to us with ideas, including refugee groups who don't necessarily have the ability to lodge these applications. We try to engage them to discuss their purpose, and develop those ideas, with the general goal of spreading the money."

Army drops defences, improves feedback

After the hot spot session, we contacted the Australian Army History Unit to learn more about its research grants program, and the reasons for its strong focus on feedback.

Q. What advantages have you found from providing better feedback?

A. There are two major benefits. Firstly, applicants are fully cognisant of the reasons why their grant application was or was not supported. If applicants understand the deficiencies, they can improve future applications, leading to an overall higher standard of application. Secondly, detailed feedback makes the decision making transparent, which protects the integrity of the grants program.

Q. What could other grantmakers do now to improve responsiveness?

A. Grantmakers could improve their responsiveness to grantseekers by keeping them informed of their grant program's processes. They can also provide clear guidance that explains the rationale of the assessment panel in adjudicating which applications are worthy of grant funding.

Q. Do you have special reasons for being open to feedback?

A. The unit adopted and expanded on the feedback provided after receiving positive responses from unsuccessful applicants. Applicants generally appreciate feedback which can help them improve their projects. Constructive feedback can also alleviate some of the disappointment felt by not receiving a grant. The general philosophy of the Australian History Research Grants Scheme is to assist all grant applicants in improving the quality of their applications and research projects (and) improve future applications.

Q. Give us an example of how feedback has delivered results.

A. A good example of the positive outcomes from offering feedback, is in the award of a grant to one applicant who submitted a solid application that promised to provide useful information for the Army. Initially, the assessment panel did not award a grant. The assessment panel felt the applicant needed an adequate comprehension of the German language to work with German records.

This point and others were communicated to the applicant, at the time of his unsuccessful application.

A year on, the applicant successfully re-applied, having gained the language skills, and subsequently completed research in German archives. That led to a ground- breaking PhD thesis, also expected to form the basis of a book, and provide the Army with an authoritative new history.


Website: Australian Army History Unit
Review process: Army History Research Grants Scheme
Help sheet: Provide meaningful feedback
Top tips: Ten steps to a great feedback process
Research: Feeback failures highlighted in surveys

This article first appeared in Grants Management Intelligence.. Tap here for the latest edition.

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