Learning From Rejection: What a Rejection Letter Can Tell You About How To Get Funding

Rejection letters are a part of the grant writing process, and it’s natural to be disappointed when you receive one. Very often, though, developing a relationship with a funder may take a few rounds of rejection—and they may be telling you how to succeed in their rejection letters.

Instead of throwing those letters in the garbage, you can take some notes and prepare for the next funding round.  Here are three common reasons for rejection you may hear from funders, and the lessons you can learn from them. For starters, here’s what to learn from three of the most common rejection statements.

“We received so many great applications, and we couldn’t fund them all!”

This is the most common reason grantmakers give for rejection in their letters—and the vaguest. It tells you that you had a lot of competition in this funding round, and not much else.

LESSON LEARNED: A lot of competition means your application needs to be compelling. It should grab attention, tell a story, as well as communicate the need for your programs and the effectiveness of your solution. Polish that application until it gleams—add good data if it’s not there already, and edit it for persuasiveness and clarity. When it’s time to submit again, make sure you’re submitting the best possible version of your application, with the highest chance of standing up to the competition.

 “Your project doesn’t align with our grantmaking priorities.”

Most of the time, this indicates that the grantmaker didn’t see clear alignment between your project and their organization’s own priorities or strategic plan. This can get confusing, because you applied specifically because you thought your project did align with their priorities and strategic plan. You may review the documentation and see that they had a focus area you may have interpreted as an interest, when it was really a requirement.

LESSON LEARNED: You’ll need to evaluate if you have program needs that do align better with the funder’s stated interests. If you do, write an application for the next round that focuses on those program needs, and use plenty of language from the grantmaker’s website and RFP to show that you understand what they’re looking for. If you don’t have program needs that align better with their stated interests, consider taking your proposal to another grantmaker who is looking to fund programs like yours.

“We would need more information on your ____________ (project model, funding structure, target population…) to be able to fund you.”

This is a great rejection, because it tells you exactly what you need to do to be successful. Take a look at the specific thing the grantmaker wants more information about, and flesh it out in full detail for the next round.

LESSON LEARNED: If a grantmaker tells you they need more information to fund you, believe them! Provide as much detail as possible in the area they indicated they needed to know more about. You may also want to take a look at the applications you’re developing for other grantmakers, and see if those applications could also benefit from additional detail in that area.

One final note: the best rejection letters are personalized. If a grantmaker has taken the time to tell you specifically what they want to see from your application, rather than sending you a form letter, they are indicating major interest in your project. Pay attention, and give them what they’re asking for the next time around.