Grant-making by Volunteer Maine
Volunteer Maine, the state service commission, builds capacity and sustainability in Maine's volunteer sector by funding service programs, developing volunteer managers, raising awareness of the scope and impact of the sector, and encouraging an ethic of service.
In order to carry out this work, the Commission makes grants largely using federal dollars (occasionally some private funding). Sometimes the grants are for large, multi-year projects and some are micro-sized to support projects in conjunction with days of service.
For example, the AmeriCorps State operating grants range from $150,000 to over $300,000 and cover a 3-year period. At the opposite end of the size spectrum are $500 grants to support community service projects on Martin Luther King Day of Service each January.
Regardless of the size, all the applications must be evaluated and rated to determine which will receive awards from the pre-determined allotment of funds.
The Commission recruits volunteers to serve as external peer reviewers. The Commission Task Force responsible for grant competitions selects reviewers whose experience and expertise best match the award process underway.
What is a Peer Review?
Peer Review is the portion of the grant application assessment process that is conducted by a panel of individuals with expertise related to the purpose and/or area of focus for the grant program. In this context, "peer" refers to looking intently or searchingly at the proposal submitted in order to analyze the quality of each application and rate them based on published criteria. The Commission adds peer reviewer comments and ratings to other information and determines which applications to support.
What is the process for Peer Review?
Volunteer Maine uses online meeting technology and teleconferencing to conduct peer reviews. This allows individuals from many different locations and in a wide variety of circumstances to participate from their home or office – wherever they can connect to the internet and telephone simultaneously.
Maine’s peer review process includes training and orientation to the grant program and purpose before applications are distributed. The proposals received are then distributed to peer reviewers electronically along with any forms used for the particular grant program. This is followed by a period of independent (i.e., “on your own”) reading and rating of applications.
Peer reviewers then meet electronically to develop consensus ratings and comments on the applications. At the completion of this meeting, the ratings are converted to a score using a pre-set system and the scores determine the rank order as well as recommendations of peer reviewers.
Is there a stipend for Peer Reviewers?
No. Volunteer Maine asks peer reviewers to volunteer their time and expertise.
The conference call expense is underwritten by the Commission by using a service that is toll free to the user. For that reason, peer reviewers are urged not to use cell phones that may have usage limits on them.
There is also no cost for accessing the online meeting software. The connection is made through a temporary program that operates like instant messaging. The program can be activated just using mouse clicks but may require permissions from IT staff in agencies that have set high restrictions on firewalls. On home or personal computers, the connection takes about 90 seconds.
On rare occasions, the Commission has opted to bring peer reviewers together in a single physical space. If that does become necessary, mileage will be reimbursed by the Commission.
Are the identities of Peer Reviewers made public?
The identities of Peer Reviewers are protected only during the actual review process. Under Maine’s rules for awarding contracts and bids, all reviewer comments, the scores, their identities, and so forth are public information once the decisions on awards are made public.
Other information that becomes part of public record are the names of all organizations that applied for funding and their proposals.
- Role of Peer Reviewers
What are the responsibilities of Reviewers?
The primary responsibility of peer reviewers is to participate in all phases of the process. Teams of reviewers are selected for each set of applications with the express intent that each person’s expertise will be brought to bear on assessing the quality. When people do not fully participate, the absence of someone’s expertise or viewpoint has a direct impact on the team. That said, we do recognize that illness or a business crisis may develop unexpectedly and reviewers may have to drop out.
Other responsibilities are to
- Protect the integrity of the process by monitoring for “Conflicts of Interest” as described in each grant program’s regulations and notifying the Commission when such a conflict may be present.
- Maintain as confidential, information about applicants that is revealed through the peer review process. This commitment to confidentiality includes a prohibition on discussing the application with individuals not involved in the selection process.
- Refrain from using such information in any way that would benefit the reviewer or any other organization or business.
- Complete all the tasks for each phase of peer review including but not limited to attending the online training, reading and assessing proposals, submitting comments and other data requested, participating in rating conference calls and online meetings.
- Maintain internet and phone capacity during the course of the process.
- Return any materials requested at the end of the process.
What equipment or material is needed?
Because Peer Reviewers generally work at home or from their office location and this process is accomplished using available technology, the following tools are essential for the role:
- High speed or DSL internet connection to handle opening of large documents and participating in online meetings that are interactive.
- Access to a fax or the ability to scan signed forms for transmitting to the Commission.
- A computer and phone with separate connections that permit using both at the same time.
- An email account.
- (optional – depends on working preference) Printer
What are the qualifications of Reviewers?
In general, peer reviewers need to have demonstrated technical experience in a field related to a need and activity discussed in a proposal. Generally the needs and activities can be classified as related to health, human services, arts or culture, public safety, emergency services, environment, education, veterans affairs, energy, economic development.
Individuals with technical expertise and experience in volunteer program design, implementation, or management are very likely to be asked to serve as peer reviewers. This happens because the grant programs managed by the Commission are awarded to organizations with existing or planned volunteer programs.
Several categories of grants also require assessment of an organization’s capacity to administer a major grant program. For that reason, the Commission needs peer reviewers with expertise in financial systems, nonprofit management, organizational development, and the various ways that nonprofits as well as public agencies generate match for federal dollars.
Other qualifications are the ability to assess written narrative using predetermined criteria and discern as well as provide rationale for the quality rating assigned; ability to read significant volumes of material within a predetermined schedule; ability to organize one’s self to accomplish the work required on a schedule that generally does not accommodate extensions or modifications; ability to participate in discussions that are not face-to-face and negotiate with other reviewers over the ratings and scoring; and, the ability to use the preferred telephone and internet technology.*
*For anyone who is unfamiliar with online meetings, the Commission provides coaching.
What is the benefit of being a peer reviewer?
You gain experience in analyzing and scoring grants that benefit local volunteer programs directly. You get an inside view of the grant-making process for a major State funder of the volunteer sector and (when applicable) learn about the selection criteria for National Service programs such as AmeriCorps and Learn & Serve. You have an opportunity to network with experts in your profession from around the region. You have a chance to learn from others how technical aspects of meeting a community need integrate into volunteer activities through strong program designs.
What is the time commitment for participating in a review?
The Commission’s peer review process is a time-intensive and time-sensitive activity. The components of a review and an estimate for the amount of time each phase takes are as follows:
- 1.5 hours -- Orientation conference call
- 1.5 hour -- Review of written assessment instructions provided to each reviewer, signing and emailing/faxing/mailing any required certifications (e.g., Conflict of Interest)
- 3 to 6 hours per application to accomplish all these tasks -- read and analyze proposal, develop and record comments and/or ratings, draft comments and submit via internet form. The number of hours depends on the grant program and the complexity of the proposal requirements.
- 90 minutes per proposal -- Online consensus scoring meeting including development of final comments [if applicable].
The time commitment ranges from 30 hours to 40 hours over a 16 day period.
How long is my application kept in the pool of potential reviewers?
Peer reviewer applications received will constitute the pool of potential reviewers for one year. Toward the end of the year, you will be contacted to determine if you would like to remain a member of the pool or deactivate your application.
- Peer Reviewer Application
Before beginning the Peer Reviewer Application, be sure to review the overview and the role of peer reviewers sections above.
Apply online by using the Maine Peer Reviewer Application form.