What to Do When Your Grant Application Is Rejected

A grant application rejection is not the end of the process.
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Rejection sucks. But if you write grants for a living, denial is to be expected. The likelihood of your first proposal to a particular foundation or government agency being rejected is astonishingly high. Industry insiders put the average grant success rate somewhere between 12% and 20%, so you are in good company. Consider the first "no" just a step toward a better fit down the road.

What to Do First

Think of rejection as an opportunity, not a death sentence. There are two immediate steps to take to help you recover your equilibrium and perhaps forge a relationship with the organization moving forward.

Call the Foundation

Call the foundation, not to complain but to get more information. Ask to talk to a program officer (or check the website to find a specific name) and ask these questions:

  1. Could we have done something differently in our proposal?
  2. May we resubmit the proposal for the next funding cycle?
  3. Do you know of any other foundations that might be interested in our project?

Write a Letter

Write a gracious letter to the foundation. Thank them for their time, their review of your proposal, and the opportunity to work with them.

Review Your Grant Application

Once you've built a bridge rather than burning one, review your application and make sure you didn't make any mistakes. You want to make sure you're not courting rejection out of ignorance or oversight. 

Retrace your steps to see if you chose the right funder for your proposal. Did you carefully match your proposal to the foundation's interests? Did you overreach by applying to a foundation in New York when your charity lives in Nevada?

Did you follow the directions for your application? Foundations typically do a fast cut of the many applications they receive. One mistake could knock your proposal out before it even reaches the desk of the deciding program officer. It's a lot like sending a resume to an employer. Most are dumped before reaching decision-makers.

Employ a Network Approach

Did you reach out and network with the foundation before you applied? Cold calling in sales can be futile, and it's no different in grant seeking. The foundation you're interested in can't just be a faceless, anonymous place. Nor should you be a stranger to a foundation to whom you've applied. Find a way to get to know someone there. Find a board member who knows someone at the foundation and have them approach someone about the grant. You can also make phone calls and ask questions to test their interest in your project.

Make Sure Your Organization Is Ready

If your nonprofit is new to the grants game, you will want to make sure that it is ready to go after grants. Do you have a good track record? Are you well known in your community? Are you fiscally capable? Brand-new nonprofits rarely receive grants, and a grant is not a solution to your financial problems. No foundation wants to help bail you out. They want to partner with organizations that are financially stable and sustainable.

Did you apply using an online application? Those are particularly tricky. The key with online applications is to practice first before you hit the submit button.

If you mailed in the application, did you get it in on time? Deadlines are usually firm at foundations. Not meeting one reflects poorly on your level of organization. A grant calendar will help, especially when you handle more than one grant application.

If you or the leadership of your nonprofit can't believe that anyone could turn you down for a grant, it might be time to check your expectations against reality before going back for more disappointment. Grants are helpful, but they should not be your first or only source of income.

Finally, never, ever waste an opportunity to develop a relationship with a foundation. That rejection could be an opportunity to reapply at a later date. And rejection, taken well, can lead to much better grant-seeking in the future.