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Top Reasons Grant Proposals are Rejected (and How to Improve Your Odds)

Grant seeking is highly competitive. Especially when approaching a foundation or seeking support for a new program for the first time, the chances of being declined are far better than the likelihood of being funded. Following are the chief reasons foundation funding requests are rejected, and approaches to beat the odds and hone your winning edge:

Reason for Decline #1: No relationship or introduction

Don’t make the mistake of submitting a grant application “cold” with no prior interaction or relationship.

Beat the odds: An important first step before submitting a grant application is to make contact and cultivate a relationship. What’s best is if you can identify a pre-existing connection: someone among your board, staff, or donor circle who knows a foundation representative and can open the door. If you don’t have such a connection, attempt to forge one. Placing a phone call first to introduce yourself and your organization can go a long way to warm up the funder to receive your proposal.

Reason for Decline #2: Mission or program fit isn’t evident

Don’t guess at the best fit or proposal strategy—get a green light to apply.

Beat the odds: Before submitting a proposal, research the foundation’s funding strategies at that time. Grant makers’ areas of focus change, and website information is limited, so a call or email to briefly describe an application idea helps ensure there’s a good fit (and that there’s nothing that excludes your project from consideration). This may also open up a conversation that yields funder specifications and helps you tailor your proposal to stand out from the rest.

Reason for Decline #3: Grant application doesn’t follow directions

Don’t overlook basic application instructions.

Beat the odds: Review the foundation’s current application format, submission process, and required attachments well before the deadline to ensure that your nonprofit doesn’t miss an important requirement. Follow application instructions carefully. Don’t be tempted to cut corners! Veering from the directions could land your proposal straight in the reject pile.

Reason for Decline #4: Program period doesn’t match foundation’s grant cycle

Don’t disregard the foundation’s funding timeline.

Beat the odds: Even worthy proposals will likely be disqualified if a nonprofit’s project doesn’t match the foundation’s funding period. Be sure to confirm the grant maker’s timeline specifications and, if possible, align the project period closely.

Reason for Decline #5: Budget isn’t clear, correct—or even provided

Don’t skip a compelling financial narrative.

Beat the odds: A successful proposal budget follows the foundation’s required format, matches the application narrative, and establishes that your funding plan is sound and achievable. Providing a financial outlook that is accurate, supports a clear need, and reflects a healthy and sustainable funding strategy is a first step. Even better: demonstrate which expense(s) will be supported through the foundation’s grant.

Reason for Decline #6: Organization didn’t meet reporting requirements

Don’t miss the chance to prove that the last grant was an investment well made.

Beat the odds: One of the most crucial ways to demonstrate that an organization deserves a foundation’s support is by providing an impressive, on-time report for a previously received grant. Likewise, one of the quickest ways to get declined is to submit a new request without first meeting reporting requirements. Foundations view grants as investments, and grantors as partners. By providing reports that clearly address successes and challenges, and offer insights into trends in the field, you can showcase your organization as a smart bet for continued funding.

Reason for Decline #7: Competition is high, grant funding is limited

Don’t let your expectations exceed your capacity or probability.

Beat the odds: Part of a smart grant seeking strategy is knowing the funding environment and making plans and projections accordingly. If possible, research the likelihood of a foundation’s support to help keep expectations on mark. If your nonprofit has received funding from a foundation before, reported successfully, and confirmed your strategy to reapply, the likelihood of continued support is higher. Conversely, if it is your institution’s first time applying and you believe the grant opportunity is highly competitive (some foundations only fund 1%-10% of requests), your grant probability is lower. Build a grants plan that balances a majority of low-risk, higher-probability prospects with some higher-risk, lower-probability targets.

While these tips can strengthen your organization’s grant winning odds, know that even outstanding proposals get declined. When your nonprofit receives a rejection notice, wrap back to the foundation for feedback (and if you haven’t yet invited the contact for a site visit, this is a good time). Two brief questions that yield helpful information include:

1. Was our application competitive and are you willing to offer feedback on what we might improve?

2. Are you open to us resubmitting our request by the next deadline?

These post-decline inquiries can reveal a lot and, like the strategies above, help you improve the odds in your nonprofit’s favor in the days ahead.  

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