Warding Off the Blues:
Perspectives When Faced With Grant Request Denial
By Mary E. Costello © June 2007
Okay, so …you did not choose to start up a new non-profit without having a bit of a fighter in you, and being someone with passion and a vision that, at least to you, needs to be realized. There is a reason why you are here, and despite the bumps along the way, there’s a good chance you can succeed if you are this particular type of person.
Hopefully, as you have read my articles, you have been able to equally take the disappointing news with the encouragement—filtering what is of value to you and finding that middle ground. My information is meant to educate, not discourage.
But this, too, reflects the entire experience of founding and running a non-profit. You will have your good days, and, yes… your not-so-good days. Days you’ll be flying high, and enough days where you can’t get out of bed that you question your decision to embark on this journey.
Your level of “stick-to-it-ness” will determine if you give up or muddle through, especially when you begin hearing “no” from all these grant funders you were convinced would love your program. If there is anything that will test your mettle, it is this.
You will undoubtedly question the merits of your program, what went “wrong,” and whether or not you need a new grant writer—if you used one, of course. You will second-guess yourself. Wonder what you could have done differently. And, question if this is always going to be what you hear. You will, naturally, move to a fear space on this.
The greatest gift you can give to yourself, your staff, and your Board of Directors is to accept that you most likely will hear “no.” Your healthy expectations will help to counter your disappointment. Please base this realistic reframe to what every other non-profit also faces… There is simply not enough money in any grantmaker’s designated funds for every applicant to get a positive determination.
Even groups that are long-established and are household names are thrilled when they get awarded a grant. That should tell you something. Even they don’t expect a positive result from every grant proposal they submit. They may have a higher success rate than you, given their visibility, longevity, and generally accepted fundability (based on public perception and historically high donation support), but they, too, can’t expect outcomes to always be in their favor.
Fairly recently I read the statistic that 9 out of every 10 applications are denied. My hunch is that that the overall rejection rate is even higher. Obviously, with this information in mind, you need to put into perspective how many grant awards you are likely to receive. Then, perhaps, you can cut yourself a break and limit how much you beat yourself up over it.
I’ve already discussed in past articles some of the reasons why groups are turned down and this article will not strongly revisit that challenge. Instead, let’s talk about how you regroup, heal yourself after this momentary setback, and move on.
Of course, expectations in the first place will come into play in the degree of let down you experience. But even when we think a proposal may be an outside shot, it is normal to feel down after you hear official word. We all get our hopes up that maybe we struck the right chord and formulas to have this one go our way.
But the funding landscape has dramatically changed. And, with that comes greater competition.
In my many years in the traditional non-profit workforce before becoming a consultant, all of our programming was grant funded. This was mostly on the governmental level. In that day, as long as your program was sound and in adherence with state licensing regulations, there was money for your organization. Once you had the grant, you rarely lost it and it was renewed from year to year with a specified percentage increase that usually fell somewhere between 4 and 5%. (Keep in mind that this is highly specific to the developmental disabilities and mental health fields.)
I started noticing a distinct change somewhere around 1990, where, across the board, budgets started getting sliced. Both in reference to our paychecks and our organizations, we were offered letters of apology from the Governor’s office and others, asking that we pull together during this time of crisis. We were “asked” by our funding sources to accept less money per client for the services we provided. Agencies accommodated, even though they traditionally ran in the red even prior to this occurring.
There is a lot more I could say about what happened after this, but it would take me terribly off point in this article and place me firmly atop my soapbox. Let’s just say that in my earlier days as a Social Worker, I only knew of one organization that pursued grants outside the governmental realm, and quite successfully. Today, I don’t know of one group that doesn’t turn to foundations and corporate support. They have to. It is the only way they can survive.
With that in mind, my friend, please be kind to yourself when you get these disappointing letters or phone calls. There are three scenarios that are possible:
1. You didn’t really fit their criterion and giving interest areas,
2. There is something you did or did not do that disqualified you from consideration, or
3. It had nothing to do with your proposal or the merits of your program. Another group simply appealed to them more.
I know, I know, you are not finding that breakdown of possibilities very helpful. So, let’s explore an action plan to take care of both your emotional needs on this and put you in the right place for your next application.
1. You and your staff are allowed ONE hour to feel badly about this. Feel as badly as you can during this time because when the buzzer sounds, it’s over. Make the most of that time and feel as crummy as you can!
2. Do not place blame on the person or persons who drafted your proposal. You do not know enough yet to fairly place that designation, if it exists at all. Don’t ask them to defend themselves regarding outcomes unless you later find they failed to follow instructions in the guidelines. Even with that, we all make mistakes…even you.
3. Take the rest of the day off, if you can, and do something nice for yourself. Put it out of your head until tomorrow. Breathe.
4. The next day, pull out a copy of the grant proposal and check it against the funder’s guidelines. Check for adherence to all that was specified in the outline and for presentation issues like typos. Did they require double or single spacing? Any margins specified? A font size and type to be used? Did you honor any indicated page restriction limits?
Did you send all the attachments that were required? Did you fully answer the questions, and, in the order in which they were asked? Did you even qualify in the first place in terms of the funder’s interest areas and geographic restrictions? Were your budget numbers realistic and was the math calculated properly? Was your financial request in line with their traditional giving levels or out in left field? Do you have all the financials they required (if a new organization)? Did you ask for them to fund a high percentage of your overall organizational budget? Did you ask for support in areas where they have restrictions?
If you find flaws in any of the items listed above, you not only may have found contributing factors for this recent denial, but you determined what needs to be improved for the next grant proposal target. Revamp your materials and approach for the next round.
Of course, if you are new, you have other challenges that could have gone against you. These are issues of track record, or lack thereof, both programmatically and fiscally. There is nothing you can do about this but put in the time and do good work to the best of your ability.
5. Call the funder. If they will speak with you about this, thank them for reviewing your materials and ask if they would be willing to give you feedback on your proposal. Some will not want to do this, but others may offer constructive criticisms. Doesn’t hurt to ask. In particular, ask them if they could tell you what you could do better in the future. Oh, and be sure you ask for their help in this…NOT an explanation. Tell them you hope to learn from the process.
Don’t be surprised if you hear a relatively blanketed statement like, “we receive far more proposals than we could possibly fund and this is not a reflection of the merits of your program.” They may, however, tell you the specifics that led to the decision. All the better. Take the feedback graciously and apply it to future efforts with this and other funders.
6. Ask an objective friend or colleague outside your organization for their honest evaluation of your written materials. You may be too close to it to detect shortcomings in narratives and your overall program.
So, back to the breakdown of possibilities for denial. If it was something within your control, then you are now armed to resolve those issues for future applications. If it was something beyond your control… there is nothing to be done but to stay positive and try again.
About the Author: Mary E. Costello holds a BA degree in Social Work from The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. She is a former Social Work Administrator who specialized in the management of complex human services programs and leading new projects creation. Forming Creative Edge Consulting in February of 2005, she now is the “resident expert” on grant writing and non-profit program development issues on the Boys Project website, a sponsored project of the University of Alaska/Fairbanks. She serves clients throughout the United States, including both community based programs and those of national scope. Programmatic and grant related questions or inquiries regarding her professional line of services may be directed to MaryCostello@CreativeEdgeConsulting.org. Mary will attempt to answer all general questions from the public but cannot guarantee a personal response, dependent on volume of requests at any given time.
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