FUNDED Articles

Pick Yourself Up & Try Again: What to do after your grant request has been denied

May 1

Written by: Grants Office, LLC
Wednesday, May 1, 2019  RssIcon

By Elizabeth Evans

So your grant proposal got rejected? Oooft, that hurts. But just like when you were younger and learning how to ride a bike: it’s time to pick yourself up, dust off those knees, and try again! Any seasoned grant professional will tell you that rejection is part of life. And while the data for predicting proposal acceptance rates is spotty, at best, many grant seeking organizations set an arbitrary acceptance rate goal for their measure of grant seeking success.

According to 2004 survey data of nearly 900 foundation grantmakers, the more funding a foundation provided in grants and the higher the number of applications received, the less likely it was to fund 50% or more of the applicants. For instance, of respondents with less than 50 proposals to review, only 38% funded at least half of the applicants. Respondents with more than 1000 proposals to review, in contrast, funded at least half of all applicants 11% of the time. The findings, detailed in Foundation Center’s “Foundation Growth and Giving Estimates, 2004 Preview” are more than 15 years old but the last, most comprehensive look giving trends across all foundation grant makers in the US. Other numbers more recently bandied about in grant writing professional groups (although lacking in longitudinal evidence) include “one-third”, or “one in 10” as the average foundation acceptance rate.


Interested in learning more from the “Foundation Growth and Giving Estimates, 2004 Preview” report? Check out:


The state and federal funding landscape can often be even more competitive. Depending on the grant opportunity as many as 45% (School Violence Prevention Program Grants, Department of Justice) or as little as 13% (Humanities Initiatives at Community Colleges Grant Program, National Endowment for the Humanities) of applicants might be awarded. The funding agency offering the opportunity may also impact the level of competition. For instance, the HHS recently noted on a webcast that only 6% of proposals were accepted agency-wide during the 2018 funding cycle. The point is, is that rejection is common in the grant seeking world. Yet, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep trying!

So what can you do when you receive that rejection letter? Read on for some of our best tips to help you get back on the horse and try again.

1.       Thank the funder.

Demonstrating gratitude isn’t something that should only be done while courting a funder or if you have been awarded a grant. It might feel awkward, but this is something that you should absolutely do even if they say no! Your response to their denial needn’t be lengthy, but acknowledgement that you received the notice and understand that they faced a difficult decision shows the funder a gracious, professional correspondence that they won’t see from most (if any) of the other rejected applicants. Saying thank you also leaves the funder with a positive impression of your last exchange rather than the emotionally draining task of having to have say “sorry”. Done well, this small but vital step can leave the door open for future conversations (i.e. relationship building) with the funder.


On behalf of [YOUR ORGANIZATION’S NAME], I want to thank you for the opportunity to apply to [GRANT OPPORTUNITY NAME]. We appreciate the time that you and others at [FUNDING ORGANIZATION’S NAME] took to consider our request and understand that you faced many difficult decisions. I will plan to follow up with you soon to explore ways our organization can improve its proposal and better align to your organization’s needs in the future.

Warm regards and thank you again,



2.       Ask for the reviewer’s comments if they haven’t already been shared.

Speaking of leaving the door open to future discussions, one of those early conversations should be to request the reviewer’s comments for your submission. For grant programs provided via public dollars (i.e. from state or federal agencies) your proposal’s comments may be sent automatically with the notice of award status. If this is not the case, however, first contact the program officer for these records. If she or he is unable to help, you can instead file a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to gain access to these documents. Note that not all funders will maintain or be willing to share these records, though. Privately sourced grant dollars (i.e. those from foundations) are not subject to FOIA regulations and are under no obligation to provide this information. That said, you should still ask the foundation funder if they are willing to share any feedback about your proposal or project idea.

Don’t consider the rejection a failure, but instead an opportunity to learn. If the funder doesn’t have written proposal feedback, but is willing to chat about why your proposal was not selected, consider asking some of these three questions to start: (1) Were there any specific weaknesses that you noted with our idea? (2) Is there anything we can do to more adequately address your concerns? (3) May we resubmit this proposal for the next funding cycle? Let the conversation flow organically from there, and reflect upon their responses. Understanding why your proposal was rejected enables you to address those problematic aspects and improve your project for the next application.

Finally, remember, upon receipt of proposal feedback to again thank the funder for being willing to help your organization grow and improve the project idea. This is not a time to complain or debate their rationale for rejection; you are gathering information. Put yourself in the program officer’s shoes and understand that they have to say “No” as often as, if not more than, they get to say “Yes” to applicants. Show them courtesy so that, again, you are leaving them with a positive impression of your organization.


3.       Stay on the funder’s radar.

For state and federal grant funders, a pre-existing relationship with an applicant doesn’t necessarily mean that the organization is any more or less likely to be awarded a grant. The same is not true when it comes to foundation grant funders though. In fact, for many foundations they may feel more comfortable making an award to an organization they have already been in contact with compared to someone who submitted a proposal out of the blue. Even so, while a pre-existing relationship with a funder is not essential for grant seeking success (with state, federal, or foundation opportunities), it certainly cannot hurt to try to build a rapport.

If you didn’t already know the program officer prior to applying, now is the time to make a connection. Confirm that the funder does allow for applicants to contact them, and if so, never, ever waste an opportunity to develop your relationship. Even if the program officer doesn’t have the final say over which proposals are or are not funded, he or she can still be a valuable resource (and potentially advocate) for your organization internally within the funding agency. Make a point to check in with the funder periodically throughout the year, not just when you have a question or other proposal development need. If it doesn’t conflict with the funding organization’s code of ethics, consider providing them tickets to your next event. Alternatively, add them to the mailing list to receive a copy of your organization’s annual report.

Initiating small but thoughtful touchpoints throughout the year can endear you to a funder and demonstrate that they mean more to you than just a potential source of funding. This relationship building might even lead to introductions to other funders as well! If the funder wasn’t able to accept your proposal this round, but has supported your organization in the past – one question you might posit is: Do you know of any other funders that might be interested in our project?


4.       Remember that it’s a numbers game.

While there are a number of grant seeking aspects that you can anticipate and prepare for – such as expected deadlines, priorities, even project award amounts – there is one element that is completely outside of your (and the funder’s) control: the number of applications received. As the total funding available and the number of expected awards to be granted are fixed numbers, the key variable that has the largest impact on a grant program’s “competitiveness” is the number or organizations who have thrown their hat into the ring for consideration. For instance, if a funder has 100 awards to grant and gets only 200 applicants, they could feasibly fund 50% of all projects. However, if the next year they receive 1000 applications for that same funding bucket of 100 available awards, they can now only realistically make grants to 10% of applicants. While variance in the number of applications received for a newer grant opportunity is common, know that established grant programs should have historical data available about the number of applications received compared to the amount of grants made. This data can often help set expectations for the likelihood of success when you go to reapply.


5.       Try again.

This is the most important step. When funders deny your proposal, it could have been for any number of reasons: too many strong applicants with proposals that scored higher, a required attachment was missing from the proposal package, your program evaluation plan was lacking adequate detail, etc. However, just because your proposal was denied this time, doesn’t mean that the funder doesn’t like your organization or idea. Unless expressly stated by the funder (likely because you proposed a project far outside the bounds of their interests), don’t think of the rejection letter as a “No”, but instead a “Not yet”.

Take some time to ruminate on the reviewer’s comments or program officer’s feedback. If you’re having trouble understanding their critiques or if you weren’t able to access these materials – share the proposal and original application instructions with a trusted friend or family member who is willing to give you some tough love. Its very easy to lose the forest through the trees when working towards something day in and day out, but getting an outside set of eyes that is unfamiliar with the project can help point out areas of weakness or other aspects that funders might find concerning. Don’t wait until the next proposal window opens to begin addressing challenge areas in your proposal either. The work you do now might be enough to strengthen and resubmit the idea to a different funder with a closer application window!


All of this said, because as grant professionals, we know not to put all of our proverbial eggs in one basket – one proposal rejection isn’t going to be the death of our project idea. A “go-wide” strategy actually increases the likelihood of a project or organization receiving an award. In fact, “The 2019 State of Grantseeking Survey Report” shows that applying to at least three grant opportunities per year significantly increased the frequency of proposal acceptance. For organizations that only submitted one proposal per year, 25% were not funded. However, of organizations that submitted between 3 and 5 proposals per year only 6% were unsuccessful. This success rate was even higher for organizations that were more active. Only 2% of organizations that submit 6 or more proposals annually didn’t win at least one award. So just because your proposal wasn’t accepted this time, remember: try and try again – you’re only increasing your odds for success!


Curious to hear what other grant applicants had to say about their recent efforts? Check out “The 2019 State of Grantseeking Survey Report”:


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