What to Do Immediately After Your Grant Application Is Rejected

Rejections are really opportunities

Woman in office phoning a foundation.
••• Gary Burchell/Taxi/Getty Images

Rejection sucks. But if you write grants for a living, rejection 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 percent–20 percent, 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. First steps to recovering your equilibrium and perhaps forging a relationship to move forward:

  1. 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?
  2. 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 common mistakes grant writers make to assure that you're not courting rejection out of ignorance or oversight. 

Here are some things to recheck:

  • 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 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 with whom you've applied for but failed to receive a grant. Find a way to get to know someone there, find a board member who knows someone at the foundation, or make a phone call to test their interest in your project.
  • If your nonprofit is just getting into 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 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 when sending a resume to an employer. Most are dumped before reaching decision makers.
    • Did you apply using an online application? Those are particularly tricky. The trick 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 badly 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 just 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.