28 Jan Denied and Denied Again by: Kellie Brungard, GPC
Denial can be challenging, especially when your grant proposals seem to be on a losing streak. Before you start rethinking your grant strategy or wondering if you’re doing something wrong, there may be other proactive steps and factors to take into consideration. Grant funding is complex. There are a multitude of funding streams, networks and relationships, and preferences involved—most of which are beyond your control. And while you can do your best to present an aligned, impactful proposal, sometimes you will never know the reason a proposal is denied. Sometimes, a string of denials prompts a self-evaluation to evaluate how you could do better, or you take the rejection personally. While self-awareness is important, so is understanding the factors that are beyond your control in an application.
For many funders, market instability can have a substantial impact on their invested funds and cause them to limit or pause their giving. Giving USA’s 2023 Annual Report on Philanthropy shows that “total giving to U.S. charities in 2022 was down 3.4% to the previous year, with a more significant decline of 10.5% after adjusting for inflation.” This correlates with volatility in the stock market, which experienced a 19.4% decrease, while disposable household income remained stagnant. This correlates with volatility in the stock market, which experienced a 19.4% decrease last year. Not only does market instability impact foundations’ endowments and assets, but it can also inhibit individual giving to foundations as well, particularly when disposable household income remains stagnant, as it has over the past year.
There are suggested industry rules of thumb that say a funder needs to see your organization’s name three times before it may be funded. Others say a funder should be seeing your organization’s name up to seven times a year. If your organization is a first-time applicant, building a relationship with a funder can be important to the process. In theory, the grant application should not be the first time a funder sees your organization’s name unless that is their defined preference.
As grant funding becomes more accessible by online applications and funder search databases, the number of applications funding organizations receive increases. It’s fairly common to see a denial letter saying a foundation was inundated with requests. Local government funding pools seem to shrink each year while foundations switch to invitation-only cycles. This doesn’t mean grant funding is going away, but funders are becoming more focused and selective in who and how they fund, increasing the competitiveness of application cycles.
Many foundations changed their priorities or giving model during the COVID-19 pandemic, using the time to redefine their desired impact. Colleagues have noticed funders prioritizing applicant-defined models, community collaborations, and systems-level change.
After considering the various external influences, there are strategies that may help improve your proposal without overhauling grant-seeking strategies. Here are three recommendations, personal and professional, that can support your grant writing.
Use the denial letter as an opportunity to open a conversation with the funder. Communications that are courteous and thankful for supporting other organizations or similar work in the community can be meaningful to funders. Request feedback on your proposal or a meeting to discuss future alignment. Not every funder will be able to give you feedback, but it can be insightful to learn from their perspective where the weaknesses or misalignments exist.
Sometimes, a string of denials can have you questioning the strength of a program or the clarity of your writing. Ask a colleague if they would review and provide feedback and highlight sections that aren’t clear. AGS offers external review and coaching services for organizations. This can be especially useful if you are interested in submitting another proposal to the funder, applying to other funders with the same program, writing to fund a new program, or don’t have colleagues who can review your work.
Focus on Relationships
As work becomes more computer-driven, it’s easy to lose sight of the relationship side of grant-seeking. Consider the organizational awareness factor above. Outside of the application, how have you connected with the foundation or program officers? When possible, engaging the foundation prior to applications to discuss alignment will help them recognize the application and serve as a building block for what is hopefully a long and meaningful relationship. Incorporating relationship-building activities into a grant-seeking strategy is an important step.
Grant fundraising can be challenging due to all the nuances and factors that impact your chances of success. There are many reasons why applications aren’t funded, so be mindful of what factors are in your control. It can take quite a while for new programs and organizations to build relationships with funders that equate to grant awards.
If you are interested in grant services, training, or review services, or are interested in our career opportunities, Julie Assel, CGMS, GPC, President/CEO, will be happy to talk with you about this opportunity and provide you with a quote for grant services.
This blog post is aligned with the Grant Professional Certification Institute’s Competencies and Skills.
Competency #8: Knowledge of methods and strategies that cultivate and maintain relationships between fund-seeking and recipient organizations and funders
Skill 8.1: Identify characteristics of mutually beneficial relationships between fund seeker and funders
Skill 8.3: Identify methods of relationship cultivation, communication, recognition, and stewardship that might appeal to specific funders