Conducting a grant-writing debriefing for future application success

Following a grant application submission, hold a formal debrief on the process to consider how your team can improve future efforts


I know I constantly preach planning, planning, planning as the most important part of the grant-writing process, especially when it comes to the Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) program, but what happens after your grant is submitted? Have you ever thought about conducting a grant debriefing?

Post-grant submission actions

Hopefully, we are all debriefing after critical fire calls and emergency situations – also known as conducting after-action reviews (AARs). We do this to learn what went right and what went wrong, how we can make improvements, and even to see the various perspectives on the same incident.

We are all conducting AARs after critical fire calls and emergency situations; we should do the same after grant application submissions. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
We are all conducting AARs after critical fire calls and emergency situations; we should do the same after grant application submissions. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

But how many times have we ever debriefed after we submitted our AFG grant application?

Usually, the grant-writing comes to an end, be it successful or otherwise, and the grant committee … does what? Probably goes off to celebrate the submission of the application.

The “what next” is generally determined by the outcome of the application – but of course, you won’t know that for months. So the immediate “what next” can be any number of things, but it likely rarely includes reflection on the just-completed application.

But why is post-submission debriefing important? If the grant was submitted on time, what is there to learn? We achieved our mission so let’s move on to the SAFER grant and continue the streak, right? Wrong.

Grant debriefing: From informal to formal

At some point after your grant has been submitted, you probably conducted a debrief and don’t even realize it. How many times after submitting do you say to your committee, “We are never going to submit our application at the last minute again”?

What did you just do? You started the process of debriefing, so why not make it a formal process?

A successful grant application certainly starts with planning. So our postmortem should begin by looking at our planning process.

Ask your team these questions:

  • Did we begin our planning process early enough?
  • Did we have all the demographic data we needed?
  • Did we have the department records we needed for the application?
  • Were we able to secure a competitive cost estimate?
  • Were our alarm statistics available?
  • Was our System for Award Management (SAM) and Data Universal Numbering System (DUNS) number information correct and up to date?
  • Did we have current equipment, SCBA and turnout gear inventories?
  • Was there any information that we needed and didn’t have?

These questions are a great way to get the group talking to determine best practices for the following application process.

Tackle grant application problems now

One of the things that drives me crazy is when I talk with a department at the opening of a new grant application period and they tell me something like, “We had problems last year submitting because of some problem with our DUNS number.”

My response: “You’ve had six months to investigate the problem so it’s fixed now, right?”

Sadly, the answer is typically either no or I don’t know.

I know it is extremely frustrating to spend all the time getting prepared to write a grant application, only to find out that it can’t be submitted. The key is this: Don’t give up at that point and forget about it because it isn’t going to fix itself. Follow up and fix the problem – now, while it’s still fresh in your mind! Don’t wait until the next application period opens because, depending on the problem, it may take too long to fix, and you may be unable to apply again.

Review your grant team

One of the toughest parts of your debriefing may be redefining your grant team. If your team has been together for a while, and been successful, this shouldn’t be a concern. However, if your team is new or there has been constant controversy, then maybe it’s time to shake up your team. If you have a member who is constantly late with their share of the work or their work always needs to be redone, again, then maybe it’s time to replace them.

Remember, AFG and most grant applications are computer-based. Please don’t appoint members to your team who can’t use a computer and then wonder why the process isn’t moving efficiently.

Debrief for the future

Grant debriefs are important, especially if it turns out that your application didn’t get funded. Reflecting on missteps isn’t fun, nor will it change the circumstances of this year’s application, but it will put your grant team in a better position to avoid future problems and will help the process move more effectively on the next try.

Identify the root causes that led to setbacks and learn from those mistakes. Even when you’ve successfully completed a project, there will always be some sort of takeaway. Integrating that information into your next planning session can accelerate learning and help ensure actions that lead to a grant award. 

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