Lessons from a Reviewer’s Chair

dara 330 2014

It’s that time of year again – the time of year I think of as “Slingshot Season.” For me and for nearly 100 colleagues who are Slingshot evaluators, the applications have landed in our inboxes and we are diving into the work of reviewing. Each year, I’m momentarily overwhelmed (why did I think it was a good idea to take on an additional day of reading and analysis!) but that feeling quickly dissipates once I begin. Like many other foundation professionals, I occasionally read applications for fellowships and other forms of recognition. It is a special opportunity.

Here are 8 thoughts that come out of that process: 4 reminders for my reviewing colleagues and 4 bits of advice and encouragement for the applicants.

Reminders for Reviewers

  1. Being an “Expert” means Constantly Learning

We are invited to be reviewers because we are “experts” who know the field. Simultaneously, it’s a great way to learn about the field. The first time I was asked to review I was both proud to think I had something to contribute and intimidated by how much I felt I didn’t know about specific areas. But it didn’t take long realize that this was an unparalleled opportunity to take an annual crash course in Jewish innovation. While reviewing, I always meet a number of organizations that wouldn’t be on my radar because of their size, lifecycle stage, issue area, or lack of fit with our foundation’s strategy. By learning about their work, I better understand trends in the wider field. And being aware of more organizations allows me to make connections between the organizations I work with regularly and potential collaborators/thought partners.

  1. Anonymous advice and constructive criticism have value

In my normal work, when I speak with an organization it can be difficult to separate good advice from the shadow of potential funding. Additionally, there are far more worthy organizations and programs than we can support. While reviewing, my experience and perspective is anonymous – which means my feedback can be shared without the perception that it is for anything other than helping the organization improve.

  1. The field continually surprises us

It’s amazingly to read an application for an organization when it is young and not fully developed and then see the organization show up in the national landscape a few years later. Often, the organization has retooled its program using a creative approach or was recognizing a need that is larger than I thought, so I get the twin joys of watching impressive innovations take root in the Jewish community and expanding my own sense of how things can work.

  1. It’s good to give back

Organizations do the work. We fund it. While funders are often are a thought partner to grantees; it’s different on the frontlines, and often unsung. Slingshot, fellowships, and awards all elevate organizations we care about (note: we all disclose our conflicts of interest & there are multiple reviewers for any application). What a great way to give kavod to the organizations who work so hard to make our shared vision of what Jewish life could be a reality.

Advice for Applicants for Awards & Fellowships

  1. It’s about the Journey, not just the destination

It’s a cliché, but I hope it’s true: deeply engaging in the process of filling out these applications helps you better articulate your work. Sometimes you’ll have new insights either into how to present that work or into programming and organizational structure you have created.

  1. Be you. (But do the homework to figure out who you really are.)

Fill out the application in a way that best expresses your organization and ideas, instead of telling us what you think we want to hear. We’re looking to learn what makes your organization, your program, your approaches unique, not find applications that fit some secret formula. Some past applications that stick out do so for the wrong reasons reasons…claiming to be the Only Ones Who Do This or having ideas that could be incredibly valuable for a small set of people but claiming that they would Revolutionize All Jewish Life. And these weren’t necessarily bad organizations – far from it. But their self-presentation was unrealistic and it became hard to separate hyperbole from aspiration from impact.

  1. Don’t apply before you’re ready

Now that I’ve sold you on how useful the application alone can be, remember there are earnest, hardworking people on the other end who are staffing the fellowship and others who are volunteering their time and expertise to give you feedback. If you’re really out of scope, don’t apply this time. There are better ways to spend your staff time as well as reviewer time…and much better ways to get on the radar of Jewish funders than being quickly dismissed as a poor fit for this one specific program. Making smart choices about your resources is always important. Focus on things that ARE a good fit.

  1. Your application is a gift to the field.

It’s easy to say, but it’s true, and you should know we’re grateful. When you put your heart and soul into a bunch of applications, get good feedback, but can’t seem to land the fellowship or prize – please don’t despair. Take what’s useful from the feedback. And please don’t feel like it’s been for naught – you may be having influence that you don’t immediately see.   As I said, I learn a lot from reading these applications, and I’m sure my fellow reviewers feel the same way. It may take a while, but you could be impacting our understanding of what’s going out on the ground, even if you aren’t aware of it.

So know that Sunday afternoon, while the kids are napping, I’m looking forward to settling in with my laptop on the couch, with a cup of tea and two cats who don’t give a hoot about innovation other than wanting to sit on the keyboard, and I’m looking forward to learning about your work. My year will be the better for it. And if you’re an applicant or a fellow reviewer, I hope yours will be too.

These are the cats.  Don't let them fool you - beneath their complacent exterior, they're surprisingly judgmental.  Luckily, they don't get a say in reviewing.

These are the cats. They are unimpressed…unlike me.

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