Updated: Aug 31
As fundraisers, the best feeling in the world is when someone tells us “yes.” It could be in response to a major gift ask, an invitation to join the Board, or some other opportunity to connect with the organization. Sometimes it’s just a “yes” to a meeting - we like to celebrate our successes.
We’re all mission-driven professionals, and hearing yes validates our work, our passion, and our optimism that we can make a difference.
That’s true in grant pursuits just as much as it is in other channels of fundraising! We spend weeks (if not months) waiting to hear back after putting our hearts and souls into a funding proposal, and when the response is an offer to fund our work, we are on top of the world.
But what about the other side of it? The dreaded “no!”
I think we all know that distinct feeling: the excitement of receiving an answer followed by the sinking feeling that comes with rejection.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that rejection hurts. In fact, research has found that rejection activates the same pathways in the brain that tell us we’re physically in pain.
It’s why the first thing I coach people on when they’re building a grant program is to prepare to hear the word “no.” Anybody who is pursuing funding for their organization is proud of the work they’re doing. If not, they’re not in the right profession. They take the success of the organization and the growth of its impact personally.
“No” can spark a series of questions that can take the wind out of your sails. Is my approach wrong? Is my organization focused on the right goals? Am I not doing an adequate job developing relationships?
The worst outcome is when these questions turn into a feeling of defeat and prompt an organization to walk away from a grant pursuit. It’s bad for the psyche of a fundraiser, but more importantly, it’s prompting an organization to walk away from the process when it’s already done the hardest work.
To cut through this, I encourage organizations to answer a simple question: is the funder saying “no forever,” “no for right now,” or “no, but talk to my friend.” No matter the type of “no,” the answer will give you clarity and help focus your efforts in the future.
After having a grant application denied, the first thing to do is reach out to the funder, thank them for the chance to apply, and request a meeting to discuss the application and where a future proposal may better align with their goals. Sometimes those meetings bear fruit, but sometimes that process is stopped immediately.
I recently had a client go through this exact process. After submitting a grant, we were denied and quickly reached out to try and get a follow-up meeting. The funder’s answer was kind yet direct.
They told us they loved the proposal and admired the organization, but they didn’t think we fully aligned with their goals. The generic “no” was given context and validation for our approach. We thanked them for taking the time to talk with us and took their feedback to heart.
Next year, we won’t approach that funder again. We’ll direct our resources toward other opportunities and know that this door is closed, not because of us, but because their goal is to create social change in a different area.
Instead of feeling defeated, our conversation with the funder left us feeling empowered and eager to move on to the next opportunity.
No for Right Now
Sometimes the best answer you can get to a grant is a “no” that leaves the door open for a future application. How do you open that door? Build a relationship with the funder!
Request a meeting and see what you can learn. I learned this early in my career - after being rejected for a VERY large grant I thought we were aligned well for, I felt defeated and frustrated. After meeting with the funder, though, everything changed. The funder told me they loved the application and sincerely wanted to fund us. The problem? They had too many competing priorities for the current year.
They gave me direct feedback on areas we could improve and told us we really should apply again during the next cycle.
That’s one of the best responses you can get when submitting a grant. “Yes” is always the goal, but when that doesn’t happen, “no for right now” may open the door to funding down the road.
No, But Talk to My Friend
It’s time to get back on my old fundraising soapbox! I can tie this back to my old piece of advice that works in almost every fundraising situation: “if you ask for money, you get advice, but if you ask for advice, you get money.”
When talking with a funder who has turned you down, genuinely ask for advice on how to move forward. It’s not uncommon for them to point you toward another funder who could align with your mission.
That may mean a warm introduction or simple encouragement to look into them. Either way, that’s an insight into the world of your community’s funders that you would not have gotten otherwise.
This is especially valuable if they have connections with funders that do not accept unsolicited applications. Your request for advice can open new doors, so don’t be shy about asking.
Staying the Course
Hearing “no” is never easy, but it’s a fact of life when you pursue grant funding. If you let “no” defeat you, you’ll be doing your organization a disservice. Treat rejection as an invitation to refine your approach, build valuable connections, and set yourself up for long-term fundraising growth.
If you need help building your grant strategy - or encouragement after getting turned down for a grant - our team of nonprofit fundraising consultants at Team Kat & Mouse are here to help.