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Help! Why Didn't My Grant Proposal Get Funded?

Updated: Jul 20, 2022

Preparing and submitting is no small feat. In an industry with only a 20% success rate, nonprofits must be prepared for declined requests of even the most competitive, polished, fundable applications.

Experienced grant writers know that there are so many components of grants out of the writer's hands. In my career, I've heard just about everything. I think the rejection that sticks in my brain the most is the application we were told we'd done everything right. But, at the last minute, the Board had chosen to award to the first 10 applications, and we were number 11 in the stack.

While there's only so much you can control, are there things you're doing that could contribute to those declined requests? Here are some examples I've heard from grant administrators that have landed applications on the top of the rejection pile:

You didn't follow the directions.

This seems pretty basic, but when you're submitting dozens of applications over the course of a year, it can be easy to become too comfortable with the process. In some cases, grantors request multiple copies of applications. They may have length limits. They may require a signature from a different executive. Some request specific reports. If you print, sign, and mail the same application to every funder, you're probably not following all of their directions.

The deadline isn't what you think it is.

In some cases, application deadlines are a postmark deadline, meaning you can technically send your application via mail on the deadline date as long as it is postmarked that day. In other cases, the deadline is the date on which the grantor expects to have your application in hand. So plan accordingly. If the deadline is the "in-hand" date, you need to make sure you make a trip to the post office a few days ahead.

You didn't make a strong enough case. Imagine you're a foundation that supports homeless shelters across your region. Then imagine how many grant proposals you're reviewing every year from homeless shelters. You don't want your application to get lost in the noise. As a grant writer, your job is to make your organization and your specific need stand out from the crowd. You need a strong case for support. You need to demonstrate to the grantor why your program is necessary, how their funds would increase its impact, and what would happen if the grant isn't funded.

You didn't do your homework.

Researching grantors goes a lot further than simply reviewing an online profile. Reviewing the organization's IRS Form 990s can give you a better grasp on the types of organizations the grantor typically funds, the specific programs they have supported, and the average grant amount for organizations similar to yours.

You made errors in your proposal.

Grammatical and typographical errors could seal your fate, regardless of the strength of your appeal. Proofreading and having someone else review your proposal for errors is time well spent. If you spend a lot of time drafting content, consider using a digital writing assistant such as Grammarly.

You relied too much on stories or too much on data. Grantors may not be very familiar with your nonprofit sector. Including only heartfelt stories of clients' lives that were changed doesn't paint the overall picture of need in your community and beyond. And the reverse is true. Relying too heavily on data doesn't pull at the readers' heartstrings or show that you are in touch with your mission's human element. Finding the balance between the two will make your request stronger and will increase your likelihood of success.

Your budget didn't make sense.

Nonprofits often wait until the last minute to throw together a project budget to respond to a grant request. This approach is backward. Your budget should be one of the first steps in your project development. It may change over time, but knowing what expenses and income you can expect and being consistent shows a grantor that you can effectively and efficiently manage your finances and, ultimately, a future funded grant.


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