Coffee with Komen — Five Things I Learned as a Grant Reviewer

By a 2018 Grant Reviewer*

I had the honor of serving as a member of the Grant Review Panel for Susan G. Komen Central Indiana this year. This is one of the most unique volunteer opportunities that Komen offers, and a chance to really see where the money goes and how Komen is impacting lives of women across their service area. I learned a great deal about different nonprofit agencies who are doing great work in our community with Komen dollars, and how Komen money impacts women and men at every stage of their breast cancer journeys. When I was asked to share my experience in this blog post, I jumped at the chance to pass along my insights to Komen’s donors, fundraisers, volunteers, and potential future grant applicants. So here are my three lessons learned to share with those who raise money for Komen, and two lessons learned for those who want to ask for that money.

1. There is always more money needed than money available.
As soon as we were assigned the grant applicants to read, we started to ask the Komen staff how much money would be available to grant out. Stephanie never really told us a dollar amount, and she had specific reasons for that. She wanted to make sure that we were scoring the applications based on who had the best program, not our ability to fund a lot of small grants with the money we had available. When we as reviewers all came together for a full-day meeting on a Saturday in March, we had some really difficult decisions to make. While we did not know the full amount available to grant, we knew that Race for the Cure in 2017 had been cancelled due to inclement weather, and this had impacted Komen’s budget. At the end of the day, we felt very confident in the slate of grants that was being presented to the Board of Directors. However, only about 50% of the grant dollars that had been requested were able to be awarded. As a grant reviewer and a Race for the Cure participant, this inspired me to increase my fundraising efforts. All the programs we read were good programs that would have done good work in the community, but we simply could not give everyone money.

2. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.
And this is why Komen does not allow the power to grant dollars to live in any one person. As the Mission Director, Stephanie coordinates the whole process, but there are several dozen people who actually have power at different stages. Komen’s Mission Committee advises Stephanie on how the Requests for Applications should be worded; the Grant Review Panel reads, scores, and ultimately ranks all applications; and the Board of Directors votes on the split of funds between the programs and approves the slate that the Review Panel presents. Altogether, there are about 50 people involved in Komen’s grantmaking process. This helps reduce personal biases and makes sure that every application is given fair consideration.

3. The responsibility of grantmaking is not taken lightly.
I spent about 30 hours over the course of seven weeks participating in grant reviewer training, reading applications, scoring and commenting on applications, participating in conference calls, and ultimately a full-day, in-person meeting to decide on which applications would get funded. When you multiply that by the 30 reviewers that participated this year, and add in Komen staff and Board time, you can see that Komen invests over 1,000 hours annually in their grantmaking process. This is not even counting the hours that Komen staff spends monitoring reports and doing site visits every year, too!

4. Know your audience!
For those who are asking to receive funds from Komen through the grants process, I would recommend being very thorough with your requests. Some applications seemed to assume that the review panel would know a lot about the breast cancer world. Some of us do, but others have different areas of expertise, including nonprofit management, finance, legal, and public health. We do not always know all the acronyms or current programs that are available to us. Spell it out; assume no knowledge. Personally, I was impressed by applications that walked me through their program so that I could understand what a “day in the life” of one of their patients felt like, and how that agency was going to fix the problems that patient felt. Also remember that sometimes it’s better to connect to another agency that is an expert in a certain area rather than recreating the wheel within your own agency!

5. Justify everything!
Tell the review panel why you need the money you need. If you are using a particular skill set (a nurse navigator for example), tell us why that person will do a better job than a lay navigator to justify the added expense. We aren’t doubting that your nurse navigators are great. In fact, several members of the review panel are breast cancer survivors or thrivers, and cannot speak highly enough of their navigators. Just tell us why we should justify that expense over others. Or, if you’re using 3D mammography for everyone, tell us why that added expense is important. If we do not know, a lot of times human instinct tells us to fund a cheaper per-person program to spread the money out further. Once you educate us, though, it’s hard to argue with your need.

*Reviewers names are kept private to maintain the integrity of the review process.

If you have questions or are interested in the grant process and would like to volunteer, please contact Stephanie Laskey at