Your Grant Application Was Denied. Now What?

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It’s always a gut punch to learn a grant application was denied. After all, you spent hours pouring over budgets and outcome measures. And, you know the program will help many more service recipients.

So what now? How can you get funding to help your organization do more, better?

We’ll get to that, but let’s first discuss what you shouldn’t do using two real-world examples.

What not to do after a grant denial

Here in our part of the world, a startup recently posted a fundraising solicitation to Facebook. In many ways, it was a typical crowdfunding request. But the messaging lacked professionalism and essentially positioned the agency as nothing more than a sore loser.

The all-volunteer organization had applied for a grant that would have been a huge injection of funds for the organization. Sadly, they weren't funded.

As a result, the agency launched a crowdfunding campaign on social media to make up for the funds expected from the grant.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach. Making up the loss of grant funding with a fundraiser is ubiquitous to the nonprofit world.

So how did this campaign go off the rails?

First, the tone of the ask was completely wrong. The social post amounted to whining and complaining. It mentioned nothing about the good the organization does or even what donations would fund. The post also said the grant would have been a better return on investment than fundraising.

While that may be true, imagine what that says to potential donors? It minimizes donors’ impact and positions them as an afterthought.

Second, the grant went to a much larger, more established organization in the same geographic area. In their campaign, the smaller agency complained about the larger organization and said it didn’t need the funding since it had a significant donor base.

Look, everyone likes an underdog story, but this was nothing more than trash talk. And it is not the way to position your organization to build relationships with like-minded nonprofits.

Public relations backfire

In a second example, one of our local non-profits lost a major grant a few years back and approached several news outlets to highlight their need for funding. In the media coverage, the executive director talked about the loss of funding and the need for increased donations.

But in telling the story to reporters, the director omitted an important detail: The agency didn’t get the grant because it missed the deadline to reapply.

It’s a small town, and word got around quickly about why the agency didn’t receive the grant. Key community foundations and potential donors lost respect for the organization. Its credibility and reputation were irreversibly damaged. Five years later, that non-profit is still struggling. 

The Big Takeaway

Both of these cringe-worthy scenarios had one thing in common. These nonprofits focused more on their own needs than the needs of those they serve. And that kind of messaging is going to fall flat with donors every single time.

Not every nonprofit can afford slick advertising or a savvy PR firm. But every single nonprofit can keep their message centered on their mission, communicate professionally, and fundraise effectively. (If you are struggling to do any of these things, click the links and check out our ebooks on each topic.)

What should you say if you don’t get a grant?

If you don’t get a grant, should your organization announce it publicly? No. It’s better to keep your mouth shut.

Here’s why.

When an organization laments not having received a grant, it can raise all sorts of questions about its capabilities and credibility.

Is that fair? Absolutely not. A nonprofit may not receive a grant for any number of reasons that has nothing to do with its service delivery or organizational structure. For example, grants may not be funded due to:

  • A large applicant pool
  • Formatting errors in the application
  • Funding capacity
  • Geographic limitations
  • Organizational alignment with funder’s priorities

This isn't to suggest you should keep the grant denial a secret. There's not shame in not getting a grant -- it happens to even the most experienced grant writers. Just don't advertise it unless there's a really, really good reason to do so.  

Actionable steps following a grant rejection

In both our examples, the non-profits demonstrated a lack of professionalism and fundraising savvy. What should they have done instead?

1.     Seek alternative funding sources

If you don’t get a grant, it’s absolutely acceptable to seek alternative funding sources. Crowdfunding on social media is a great strategy, but it must be handled professionally and position the nonprofit appropriately.

Don’t focus on the grant denial. Instead, craft a compelling need statement that's focused on the needs of the service population instead of the needs of the nonprofit. And always keep it positive. Focus on the good that donations are going to support. And include a call to action that empowers donors to be a part of the solution.

2.     Don’t take it personally

Over the years, we’ve seen plenty of nonprofit leaders who take a grant denial personally. They see it as a slight on their organization or even their own abilities. We encourage you to keep this in mind: most grant applications aren’t funded.

If you Google “percentage of grants funded,” you’ll get a range of answers. Some say only 1 in 10 grant applications are funded while others say 30 percent of federal grant applications are approved. We can’t put an exact figure on the number of grants that receive funding, but from our experience, expect to get denied more times than approved.

3.     Thank the funder

Send a thank you note to the funder, even if your application was denied. Express your appreciation for reviewing the proposal. Make your note heartfelt, but not saccharine. Your goal is to maintain a positive relationship with the funder so your nonprofit is positioned for future grant funding.

Pro tip: Hand write the note on a branded notecard.

4.     Seek feedback

Some grantors will provide feedback on grant applications. If you don’t receive feedback in your denial letter, call the program officer and ask for it. Ask what you could do differently in future applications. You may not receive feedback – some funders have policies against it – but it can’t hurt to ask.

5.     Get training

Grant writing is a skill that takes practice and training. If you’re new to grant writing – or even an experienced pro who needs a refresher – taking a grant-writing course is always a good idea.

You’ll learn ways to approach a grant application that make the writing process less time-consuming. You’ll learn how to mesh your application with the funder’s priorities so it stands out from the pack. And, you’ll learn why formatting your proposal correctly is vitally important to your grant success.

There are plenty of grant-writing courses out there, but many are live webinars that require you to fit the training into your busy schedule. We offer a self-paced course that you can access on your timetable. Our course, Making Grant Writing Work for Your Organization, also comes with downloadable, supplemental resources and a 100+ page workbook.

Learn more about our course and why we know it’s the right solution to help your organization do more, better.



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