Rejected: What to Do if Your Grant Proposal is Denied

by | Jun 14, 2024 | Development/Fundraising, Grant Writing



You just received a grant rejection letter. Ouch!

You found a great foundation prospect and did your due diligence. You even asked all the right questions to make sure your organization was a good fit. But still, your proposal was turned down. And with a form rejection letter no less.

What do you do now?

At Funding for Good, we’ve coached organizations and consultants for years on how to turn a grant rejection into future funding. Here are the key steps we teach our clients.


Step One: Allow Yourself to Feel Disappointed About the Grant Rejection

Rejection stings.

Accepting rejection is one of the most important skills a fundraiser can develop. Sure, winning grants feels great—but no one raises millions of dollars without experiencing a lot of rejection.

Remember: whether you apply for government, corporate, or foundation grant dollars, a grant award is never guaranteed!

Start by acknowledging those initial feelings of disappointment and frustration. You put a lot of work into this proposal, and it didn’t pay off. You may have been counting on the grant to launch a new program or cover a funding gap. You may be facing tough budget decisions.

Figuring out your next steps post-grant rejection requires a clear head. Let yourself feel those feelings—knowing you are not alone—and then let them go. Only then can you start planning your next steps.

Whatever you do, though, never send an angry response to a foundation’s grant denial letter! You’re at the beginning of building a new funding relationship—and what you do next will set the tone for many grant cycles to come.


Step Two: Find Out Why Your Grant Proposal Was Denied

Determining WHY a grantmaker denied your proposal is essential to increasing your chances for future funding.


Top reasons why grants are rejected

There are three primary reasons donors deny grant funding:

1) Capacity to Give: Grantmakers have a finite number of dollars to award each cycle. Competition for those dollars is usually high, and funding requests often exceed grantmaking budgets. It’s possible that your grant was on the cusp of being funded, but the dollars were allocated elsewhere.

2) Giving Priorities: Although your proposal might have “technically” been eligible for funding, it may not have aligned with the grantmaker’s priorities as closely as they wanted. Remember, grantmakers have their own impact goals and are looking to invest in grantees that can best achieve those goals. Thus, a proposal that directly addresses key priority areas is more likely to be funded than one that “touches” on those priorities. Grantmakers also shift their priorities more often than you might expect, so asking clarifying questions before submitting a proposal is essential.

3) Quality of the Proposal: Grantmakers seek assurances that grantees are committed and equipped to administer funds in a way that achieves the intended impact. The following faux pas often contribute to denial letters:

  • Failure to follow all guidelines (page limits, font, margins, required content, submission instructions, etc.).
  • Poorly written grant proposal (the proposal was not clear, concise, or compelling).
  • Weak program design (the proposal was vague, over-ambitious, or failed to articulate strategies for achieving the stated goals/objectives, evaluation measures not in place, no sustainability plan, etc.).

Understanding why your grant was denied will make a considerable difference in your fundraising planning.

Note that some grantmakers explicitly state they do NOT provide feedback on why a grant proposal is denied. So focus your energy on those that do.


How to graciously ask for feedback on a rejected grant

Start by writing a personal thank you note to the donor and thank them for considering your proposal. Let them know you appreciate the opportunity to apply and look forward to exploring future partnership opportunities. Ask if they have any feedback on your grant proposal that they can share and if they’d be available for a brief call to discuss how you can strengthen your proposal.

Points of conversation should include the following:

  • How many proposals did the grantmaker receive this funding cycle?
  • How many grants did they award?
  • Was this a traditional grant cycle, or did something affect typical grant outcomes? (For example, a shift in the grant cycle or process, new funding priorities, or economic factors.)
  • Was there anything specific that disqualified your proposal from funding?
  • Can the program officer/grantmaker/review board share any feedback on how you can strengthen a future proposal?
  • Could your organization submit a proposal for a future grant cycle, and if so, when? (Some grantmakers have restrictions on how often a nonprofit can submit a proposal.)

Accept all feedback graciously! Be humble and say thank you. Avoid arguing or making excuses. Arguing will not increase your chances for a future award. Instead, you risk alienating a potential donor.


Step Three: Make Your Grant Proposal Better

Now that you know why your grant proposal was rejected, you can start working to improve it.

Keep in mind, you may need to start with your program design—rather than the words on the page. Bring in your colleagues focused on program work and share the foundation’s feedback. If you have gotten similar feedback from multiple funders, this is especially important to note. Not everyone wants to change their program design—but they do want to be sure their work is funded.

Be sure to pay attention to your metrics and evaluation plans. If you submit a new grant to the same funder and receive a grant award, you want to be sure you can deliver on your goals.

For more guidance on writing winning grants, check out our top grant writing tips and our grant template checklist.


Step Four: Keep Cultivating the Funder

A funder who takes the time to give you feedback on your grant proposal rejection is already investing in your organization. It’s your job to help them understand why their investment is so critical—and why your organization is an essential partner.

You will want to:

  • Send regular impact reports or overviews.
  • Invite them to programmatic events you are having, like an open house or a community forum.
  • Share sponsorship opportunities (this can sometimes be a way for a foundation to make a smaller initial gift).
  • Respond to their requests for feedback (foundations are increasingly seeking input to evaluate their own work).
  • Keep an eye on the foundation’s RFPs and grant cycles. Consider checking in with them before submitting a new proposal. A kind note saying how helpful their feedback was can go a long way.

Even if your organization is NOT encouraged to reapply in the future, keep the relationship building in place. You never know when you will have a project or program that fits the grantmaker’s interest in the future.


A Grant Rejection Letter Is an Opportunity

We firmly believe that a grant denial is just one step on the journey to successful fundraising. It’s an opportunity to get honest outside feedback about your grant proposal. You can then hone your programs and your pitch. This increases the likelihood that your next grant proposal—whether for this funder or another—will get that sought-after grant award letter.

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