You Worked So Hard – But Didn’t Get the Award


Time to Debrief, Part 1

You spent days and weeks preparing a competitive grant request. You built a strong set of partnerships to demonstrate the community commitment to address the root of this problem. Together your partners crafted a focused plan of action. You are proud of the final project that was developed and the proposal that was written. However, a month or so after submission you get a rejection letter.

Really? You were 90% sure you would receive this award. You are very disappointed. And now, of course, you have to break the news to other staff, the board of directors, and worst of all your new partners.

But wait a second! Before you start breaking the news, I suggest you do a solid debrief so that you can share with others your thinking about why the proposal didn’t get funded, and what your next steps will be. This kind of information moderates the initial let down and allows you to keep the momentum going. It will also build your own credibility with leadership and partners, not to mention the funder.

It’s not a checklist, it’s a conversation

So why was your request denied?

Keeping in mind that what you don’t know will probably hurt your next attempt at securing an award, you want to really dig in and do a little Sherlocking. And as tempting as it is to create a checklist of items you should consider as you debrief, the bottom line is that debriefing lends itself to a more fluid discussion.

Where to start?

Before you do anything else double check to make sure you met all of the application requirements. Something simple, such as forgetting to attach your latest financial audit may have killed the request at the intake desk before it even reached the decision makers. This does (in direct contradiction of what I just said!) lend itself to reviewing a checklist of items required in the application guidelines. You probably already have this checklist in hand, so just go over it one more time to make sure you were in compliance.

The next step is to take a bit of time and review the rejection letter carefully as there are often hints given as to why you weren’t funded and what you might do next. For example the letter may say:

“Thank you for your application. We received over 400 requests, and we could only award 20, so though your application held many merits we simply could not fund it in this round.”

There are two hints in this brief note:

1. The competition was very stiff, so your request may not even have made it through the first reading.

2. When they say ‘this round’ it makes you wonder if perhaps the next ‘round’ might be more successful.

Happy Applicant

Did you contact the grantmaker before submitting your request?

If you didn’t speak with the funder before submission that certainly can be a mitigating factor. Grantmakers often like to have some contact with the organization before making awards. However, now that you have submitted one request, which was denied, it presents a great opening for you to contact funder and begin building that critical relationship. Don’t be afraid to ask the funder if they can provide you with feedback on why your proposal was rejected. That request can be made by email, but the feedback conversation is best done in a phone conversation.

Requesting the reviewer’s comments has become quite common, and speaks to transparency on the part of the grantmaker and the grantseeker. Remember this conversation is a learning experience. Don’t take the criticisms or comments personally. Perhaps they felt your governance structure was weak. Then it is up to you to find out as much as you can about how they think it could be strengthened. This kind of discussion builds a lot of credibility between you and the potential funder. They will likely appreciate your eagerness to take their comments to heart. Then, in a few months, call back and let them know what you’ve done to correct the issue and thank them for bringing it to your attention.

If it wasn’t referenced in the rejection letter, you may also want to ask the grantmaker how many requests were received and how many funded. That might give you a clue as to why you weren’t awarded funds during this round. It could be a simple matter of competition.

Also consider contacting past grantees. Find one or two you feel comfortable talking with and ask them how many times they applied before receiving funding. Some grantmakers reject the first (and sometimes even the second or third) request from an organization, on principal. They want the organization to be persistent in their ask. If you don’t know this about the funder, then you may only apply once and give up! So see if you can ferret out the process others went through before receiving their award.

Government funding agencies – both federal and state – are mandated to provide equitable funding across geographic areas, split between urban and rural, for example. Know the guidelines for your particular funding opportunity and then ask your legislator to find out why you didn’t receive the funding. Working through your legislator is a much more effective way of gathering information about rejection at the state or federal level.

Arianne and Portland Rescue Mission

Writing this blog post wasn’t my brilliant idea! The idea came from Arianne Benedetto, who is the lead grantwriter for Portland Rescue Mission. Her initial email said:

Hi there, I'm a GrantHub user who is new to GrantStation. I first encountered GrantStation with the recent webinar given through GrantHub about grants planning strategy for the new year, and I was impressed.

I'm curious, do you know of any resources for a grant denial "post-mortem"? (That is, how to learn from a denial to a grant proposal and deciding how to proceed in the future.) Just curious if there's anything out there so that we don't have to build it from scratch ourselves for our team. 

Thanks so much for your time!

My staff forwarded this email on to me, and I scratched my head and thought, “We do not have anything remotely like this. . . but we should!” So I decided to do three things:

  1. Write a blog post addressing this issue.
  2. Work with Arianne to help Portland Rescue Mission develop a debriefing process.
  3. Share the process we develop as a template for all of you to use as you generate your own debriefing approach.

Can you help us out?
Over the next few weeks I will be working with Arianne on this debriefing process. I am hoping some of you reading this post will also have suggestions and ideas that should be included in this process. Please email me ( with your thoughts and ideas or post them as a response to this blog.

Read Time to Debrief Part II to see the debriefing document Cynthia and the Portland Rescue Mission developed.

Action steps you can take today