The Development Source

How to Learn from Your Grant Proposals

Everyone talks and writes about learning from our proposal efforts, but very few nonprofit organizations either take the time to do it or have processes in place to capture lessons learned and then act on them.  The reasons are obvious. 

Once a proposal is submitted, the proposal team is eager to forget what just occurred and move on to other activities.  Senior management has the same attitude.  Long-term memory loss is an adaptive survival trait in most proposal efforts.

Beth Wingate of the Lofeld Consulting Group is more optimistic.  She believes that it is possible to capture, document, and even institutionalize lessons learned in a proposal.  Below are her major recommendations.  Although she developed them for businesses, they also apply to nonprofit organizations.

After every proposal effort, hold an internal proposal lessons-learned meeting within one week of the submission. Before the meeting, send team members a standard set of questions to complete.  Compile the responses, delete redundancies, and use them to have a frank discussion about improving your proposal processes and outcomes.  Questions should center on these topics:

  • Overall evaluator comments.
  • Overall budget evaluator comments.
  • Team comments about the process.
  • Recommendations for doing things better the next time.

After every proposal effort, hold an external proposal lessons-learned meeting with senior management within one week of the submission.  Prepare a form to capture major comments about the grant guidelines’ evaluation criteria and proposal sections.

Compile and circulate all the comments.  Create a master debrief document and distribute it to everyone involved in the proposal effort.  Wingate suggests creating a document called “Top Ten Lessons Learned” and hanging it up in conference rooms and other venues where proposal teams work.  She predicts that after a few months of constantly seeing these lessons, proposal teams will start self-policing themselves and applying the lessons to their work.

Wingate recommends that a good lessons-learned process occurs in three parts.  First, you gather the information.  Next, you compile a list of the most important lessons.  And last, you find a way to incorporate these lessons learned into your next proposal effort.

Today, it is fashionable to talk about nonprofits as learning organizations.  Wingate has provided us with good advice about how to make that possible in the proposal arena.

No matter how many times you work on grant proposals, there is something to be learned from every effort.  Find ways to turn your proposal efforts into a lessons-learned opportunity and you will improve your grant proposals.



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