Friday, February 1, 2008

Your Grant Proposal's Been Rejected - Now What?

A few year’s back I did some work with a struggling educational nonprofit. During my initial review of their past foundation support, I discovered on their list a foundation whose mission I thought aligned perfectly with this organization’s, and also had a history of repeat funding.   Yet, year after year, the foundation had declined this organization’s proposals – even one year when they had specifically been invited to apply. Frankly I didn’t get it.  It was tempting to put them in the "they'll never fund us pile" but I picked up the phone to call their executive director.  Not knowing if I’d even reach a live person, I was delighted when he answered himself.  I asked him rather bluntly why his foundation had not funded us. One month, one letter, and one site visit later we were the recipients of a $15,000 grant - the first of many.

It's always frustrating to have your grant proposal rejected, but it's absolutely essential to stay optimistic and to persevere. The fact is that most grant proposals do get rejected, but learning from the experience--examining why your proposal was turned down--will benefit you by making future proposals stronger. And don’t give up on one foundation because they have declined your proposal. Unless you specifically don’t fall within their funding guidelines (in which case you probably shouldn’t have wasted your time applying in the first place), you’ll want to reapply as soon as you’re able.

If you feel like you've done a solid job describing your non-profit's mission, the population you serve, and how your proposed grant would help your clients, then take another look at the foundation's mission. Did your proposal help the foundation meet its goals? Was it really a good fit in the first place? Foundations routinely turn down the best conceived projects simply because the goals of the non-profit and the foundation aren't aligned. Explore the foundation's website, annual report and 990 form to see what kind of projects they've funded in the past, and compare those projects to your own. See what you can learn, and if this step wasn't part of your last round of proposal applications, make it part of your next.

If you're confident that the goals of your proposal met the goals of the foundation, then go back to the original Request for Proposals. Consider the following questions:

Next, evaluate the writing in your proposal.

Did you state your needs clearly and specifically, right up front?

  • Did you include information about your non-profit's other sources of funding to help show that you're a worthy cause?

  • Did you use testimonials to bring the needs of your clients to life, and did you use meaningful, accurate data to support your organization's needs?

  • Is your writing clear and compelling?

  • Does the proposal sound like it's been written by one person, or do several different voices make it choppy and scattered?

  • Is the formatting clean and consistent?

  • Did you use headings and subheadings to make your proposal easily navigable?

If you've reevaluated your proposal and still have questions, call the foundation and ask to speak with the program officer who reviewed your proposal. After you've thanked them for their thoughtful review, ask:

Is there anything we could have done differently in our proposal?
May we resubmit for your next funding cycle?
Are you aware of any other foundations that we might approach?

And in your next round of grant proposals, build upon what you've learned. Send your applications to a diverse group of foundations, and be sure to explain how your project can help each foundation meets its own goals, not only how the foundation can help you meet yours. Above all--be patient, be persistent, and be positive.

Check out my book, Five Days to Foundation Funding at for more ideas!

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