Assessment: How to make good grants decisions

Decision making

When it comes to effective grant assessments and decisions, preparation is the key.

SmartyGrants managed services specialist Joshua Presser, who recently updated the SmartyGrants Grantmaking Toolkit, says good assessment stems from great planning and design.

Assessment can be a straightforward exercise, but only if grantmakers have laid the groundwork carefully in the first place.

Those foundations need to include clear aims, good governance, transparent criteria, accessible information, an understanding of risk, and a process that’s proportional to the grants on offer.

Josh Presser
SmartyGrants specialist Josh Presser

Ideally, grants programs should be an extension of a funding organisation’s existing strategic plans and policies, creating consistency and clarity for funders and grantseekers alike.

The more clearly you’ve articulated your grantmaking policy, set out lines of responsibility that others understand, and documented your assessment framework before appointing assessors, the better the result.

“These days grants are more scrutinised than ever, and you want yours to be fair, transparent and defensible,” Mr Presser said.

“Documenting your assessment framework is like a handbook for everyone that explains who is responsible for which part of the process, and facilitates a consistent approach by providing guidance on how to assess eligibility and merit,” Mr Presser said.

Grantmaking toolkit
Tap to access the toolkit (available to SmartyGrants users)

SmartyGrants advises grantmakers wanting to establish an excellent assessment process to refer to the Grantmaking Toolkit, which has a chapter dedicated to the topic as part of the nine-stage process developed by the SmartyGrants team.

That toolkit is free for SmartyGrants users.

Here are a few starter questions from the toolkit:

  • Who will conduct eligibility checks, and how will you handle ineligible applications?
  • When will assessments be considered, and who will be tasked with the job?
  • Should you use a scoring and ranking system? And how will you conduct the process?
  • How will you record assessments?

Create a process that fits the size of your program

An important consideration when designing an assessment process is to ensure that it is appropriate to the amount of money being offered.

For example, council funding for community barbecues worth less than $500 should probably be a matter for a small in-house team, whereas a multi-million-dollar research program requiring expert external assessors will need a complex assessment program.

“You’ll want an assessment process that’s proportionate to the size and scope of your program. It needs to be fit for purpose,” Mr Presser said.

“If you don’t get this right, you’re either wasting resources and people’s time, or exposing your program or organisation to unnecessary risks.

“You can have as many layers of approval as you want, but it’s about balancing what you’re trying to achieve, while mitigating any risks.

“Generally, with our SmartyGrants managed services clients we aim to make the process as streamlined as possible and do the minimum number of approvals necessary.”

High value or culturally or politically sensitive grants might prompt funders to require additional approvals.

Guard against problematic conflicts of interest

In an era in which grants audits are appearing with metronomic regularity, prior planning will also help prevent trouble with issues such as conflict of interest.

Assessment panels are often expected to consider applications in which assessors have an interest, whether that interest is personal, professional or monetary.

One example is the Community Broadcasting Foundation, which seeks assessors who work in community broadcasting. It’s necessary in a field where those people are best placed to make assessments. The foundation is careful to ensure assessors can’t review their own applications.

Mr Presser stressed that assessors must declare interests, and that grantmakers must take steps to avoid actual and perceived conflicts of interest.

It was also important that assessors, especially external assessors, were aware of their obligations in relation to conflict, confidentiality, and commercially sensitive information, he said.

This may require assessors to sign confidentially agreements. Mr Presser noted that SmartyGrants offered tools that enabled grantmakers to lock down access for assessors to ensure they saw only relevant information.

Conflict may need to be managed at the other end of the spectrum too. In some cases, funders may not want assessors to be known, to protect them from being pressured by grantseekers, for instance.

In the political arena, highly publicised cases have exposed politicians thumbing their noses at the guidelines. Mr Presser, who was a federal public servant before he joined SmartyGrants, suggested grantmakers could protect themselves against accusations of bias by having a well-documented assessment process. Beyond that point, it would be up to politicians to justify their actions in light of that framework, he said.

If you’re not reaching your grants targets, think back to the criteria

For funders, it’s frustrating when the quality of grant applications doesn’t live up to the outcomes, goals and targets they’re trying to achieve.

To avoid the undesirable situation in which grantmakers are tempted to reverse engineer their eligibility requirements or bend the rules to achieve a desired result, grantmakers must ensure they’ve set parameters to attract the right applications in the first place.

Mr Presser said this goes back to setting clear eligibility requirements and merit criteria up front.

For example, grantmakers seeking applications from organisations concerned with CALD communities, gender diversity, First Nations, people with disability, and specific regional and remote areas should consider access, equity, fairness and accessibility as part of their program design from the beginning.

SmartyGrants offers further advice on equity in the help sheet “Identifying outcomes agents”, which looks at application processes and forms, including barriers to entry.

Mr Presser said that in their grants guidelines, funders should clearly target those who are most likely to achieve their goals. The more targeted the eligibility and merit criteria, the greater the chance of a fruitful assessment process.

For example, depending on their overall goals and objectives, grantmakers could spell out assessment criteria that apply a geographical, gender or equity lens.

In some cases, grantmakers may choose to discard competitive grants altogether and instead deploy non-competitive grants, or even “direct select” processes to award funds to chosen providers.

“Whatever decisions you make and whatever approach you take to assessments, you need to be able to defend them by reference to your original guidelines.”

Write your assessment comments as though people are watching

Amid greater scrutiny of grants decisions, Mr Presser said funders should know that many assessments are now subject to freedom of information requests, and potential media interest.

It’s good practice for assessment comments to be used for grantseeker feedback, and Mr Presser noted that SmartyGrants users could configure the system to include selected “external” comments in feedback letters or emails.

Mr Presser warned grantmakers to avoid processes that exposed decision-makers to lobbying and post-decision complaints from unhappy applicants.

Again, clear policies will help avoid such problems, but assessors and decision makers may require some training to ensure they know how to respond if approached.

Improve your future assessments

Mr Presser said the real measure of the effectiveness of assessment processes might not be known until after funds are spent and the impact of the program is known.

At that point, he said the key question should be: Did your grantees do what they said they would do and deliver the results that you’d hoped for?

After an assessment, grantmakers should be ready to review their guidelines and processes.

Grantmakers can also use the post-assessment period to assist unsuccessful applicants with feedback to improve future applications, given that funders are highly likely to encounter those same groups in future rounds.

More information

Help sheets: Assessment panels

Help sheet: Which applications warrant funding?

Best practice: More guidance on assessment and decision-making

SmartyGrants users: Help for assessors

SmartyGrants Grantmaking Toolkit: Great tips for grants assessments