The Color Game
Many larger organizations and for-profit companies use a best-practice method to prepare competitive proposals: color-themed “teams” or “hats” at each stage of the process. While the specifics of each phase may vary, some typical stages include blue (“capture” or pre-proposal planning, preparation, and decision-making), black (evaluating the competition), pink (review outlines/early drafts of proposal), red (review entire proposal), and gold (final, senior-level review and assessment). Many larger organizations have multiple staff at each stage. For example, separate “capture” teams work solely on pre-bid work—all usually before a request for proposal is even released.
Small- and medium-sized nonprofits generally do not have such resources. Yet, the grant professional can implement just a few elements of the color review process to improve the competitiveness of proposals. Color reviews provide two key tools: the power of perspective and thepower of process.
The Power of Perspective
We all know how important it is for someone else to review and edit our work. Color reviews institutionalize this process by identifying individuals who will evaluate proposal plans and drafts at defined stages in the process. Reviewers provide the impartial perspective of a new reader: what is the proposal missing? What is not clear? How does the proposal stack up against evaluation criteria?
The small-shop grant professional can identify one to three individuals outside of the grants team to help provide this perspective. For example, one can work with program staff to identify a couple of their subject-matter contacts in the field. Or, the grant professional can engage staff in other departments or divisions, contacts in partner organizations, past employees, or even fellow grant professionals. Such reviewers are particularly useful at two stages: at the “blue” stage, to help assess the organization’s readiness to pursue a grant opportunity amidst the competition; and at the “pink” and “red” stages in critically reviewing proposal drafts.
By lining up external reviewers, the grant professional and an organization benefit beyond just valuable input into a proposal. In itself, the act of recruiting external reviewers—even if just one or two—demonstrates to the reviewers and to the broader field that the organization is a serious grant seeker and strong contender for grant funding in the field. Reviewers may refer and recommend new grant opportunities to the organization. Also, if a grant professional has been seeking to engage a prominent specialist, donor, or advocate, the chance to serve as a reviewer is a high-trust way to actively involve them in the organization’s cause and in its actual work, thus deepening their relationship with the organization.
The Power of Process
Color reviews provide reinforced structure and clarity to a proposal timeline. With color-themed stages, proposal team members know exactly which stage a proposal is in and the purpose of that stage. For example, team members will focus on providing comprehensive feedback during the “red” team stage, knowing that the subsequent “gold” stage is only for critical last-minute changes at a senior level.
By incorporating reviewers from outside the grants shop, the grant professional can more easily rationalize the importance for the internal team to meet deadlines. For example, if external reviewers are well-known and admired in the field, internal staff will likely want to avoid the embarrassment of being late in providing materials to these specialists. The pressure to be on-time with an external reviewer is much stronger than with an internal colleague.
Challenges and Opportunities
While color reviews provide substantial benefits to perspective and process, they pose challenges to the grants professional. Smaller organizations may find it difficult to compensate external color-team reviewers; grant professionals may need to be creative if they are not able to secure pro-bono reviewers. For example, the organization can provide a small honorarium; offer in-kind incentives such as free subscription to a newsletter or a complimentary ticket to the organization’s gala or recognition event; or acknowledge reviewers with an “advisor” or “review committee” type of title.
Color reviews also add to the number of people and tasks that the grant professional must coordinate. With more people in the proposal process and more “fingers in the pie,” the grant professional must handle multiple edits, viewpoints, and personalities. To address this, the grant professional must adhere rigorously to the process, timeline, and purpose of each color stage. For example, the “gold” stage is not the time for a reviewer to present a new perspective on the entire proposal, and the grant professional must remain firm to the process.
Despite these challenges, color reviews bring significant benefits to perspective and process. With nominal resources, grant professionals can incorporate essential elements of the color spectrum —particularly engaging at least one external perspective at defined points in the process—to strengthen grant proposals and keep them on time.