By Natalie Rekstad, Founder & CEO of Black Fox Philanthropy

A denial letter or email from a funder can be disheartening, but there is also gold in understanding the “why” behind the denied funding.  The most valuable thing you can do if your NGO is declined funding is to get feedback and guidance to help up the odds for funding in the next round. What would have gotten you over the finish line? Many funders are happy to share their rationale with applicants, as all are in this sector to create sustainable change.  Specific questions can include:

  • What was the original inspiration behind inviting us to submit a proposal?
  • What was the most compelling aspect of the submission?
  • What aspects of our organization set us apart in a positive way from other organizations you’ve funded?
  • What areas do you feel could be improved upon?
  • What do you feel is the weakest link in the submission?
  • What would have made that weak link stronger?
  • On a scale from 1 – 10, where did we land in terms of being a fit with _____ Foundation?
  • What would make it a 10?
  • What is your greatest funding amount given to other organizations in our issue area of ___________, and what are they doing that inspires that level of investment?
  • Under what circumstances do you discontinue funding an organization?
  • Under what circumstances would you invite us to resubmit?
  • Based upon all you now know about our work, proven theory of change, and more, what other funding partners do you feel should know about (organization)?
  • Would you be open to making introductions?
  • Anything I may have missed that you could share that would strengthen our organization or our relationship with you?

Note:  The funder may not want to hop on a Zoom call for 30 minutes so seek permission to submit the questions via email.  Also try for Video call as your first request.

Another incredible source is The Unfunded List. The Unfunded List evaluation committee provides helpful and candid feedback on grant proposals and other fundraising materials from experienced experts.  If you have questions about your eligibility you can contact help@unfundedlist.com.

Once you receive feedback, we recommend asking yourself:

  • Is this something that I can change? For example, if you were declined because they decided to stop funding in your geographic area, that’s not something you can change.
  • If it is something you can change, ask yourself, is it a good idea for my organization? For example, if you were declined because the funder wants to support a particular programmatic aspect that you don’t currently offer, or because the funder is interested in scale, is that a direction you’d consider going in without this funder’s support or is this a case of the “tail wagging the dog?” Many organizations have found themselves victim to “mission drift” as they have tried to adapt their programs for various funders. While funding is attractive, it’s equally important to stay focused on the integrity of your mission and vision.

If the feedback and internal answers to these questions lead you to want to re-apply, discuss that with the funder. In our experience, an initial “no” from a funder usually doesn’t mean no forever, and many organizations that have been successful on the second or third try.

If you aren’t able to receive feedback from the funder, you can still learn something. Have any of your peer organizations been funded or denied by the same funder?  What was it that set them apart?  Reach out and ask them if they’d be willing to share any feedback they received from the funder about why they were or were not funded.

You can also revisit the funder’s website and most recent Form 990, and take a closer look at to whom the funder has awarded grants. Are there any common themes among grantees that your organization does not share, or a clear shift in the funder’s strategy? For example, are most of the funder’s grantees located in a specific geography where you do not have programming? Once you find some commonalities, ask the same questions as you would have had you received feedback from the funder: Is this something I can change? If so, should I change it?

While receiving a denial from a foundation can be discouraging, it can also be an excellent learning experience – you just have to ask the right questions. At Black Fox Philanthropy, our belief is that the best funding experiences – for both funder and grantee – are those that advance your shared mission and vision. Using that as your north star, you’ll find the best fit and right relationships to cultivate.

P.S. – Looking for more foundation prospects? Painless Prospecting might be just what you need.