Even if you are a stellar fundraiser you will face rejection of some of your proposals. It happens. This is life. You merely get to decide how you will use this experience to improve your organization. You may not be what the funder is looking for at that moment after all. Or you may not have made it adequately clear that you were indeed precisely what they were looking for. (See also my posts on calls for proposals and on the relevance of your idea). Whatever the case may be, you will at some point receive that letter that says ‘no’. What then? What to do when your proposal is rejected? Here is what I think.
First, you need to assess the situation. How big of a setback is this rejection? In what year will this rejection impact your organization – this year or next year or even later? What percentage of your projected income is affected by this rejection? Were you counting on a yes? Were you in desperate need of a yes to keep going? Or do you have plenty time to get funds from other sources to implement the idea next year? Or can you have a good year next year without this idea being realized?
What to say?
Once you know what the impact of the rejection is, you need to figure out what you should do next. How will you share the information with your team? When? Do you need to first discuss with a small group about a plan B? Are there people you need to inform first, ahead of others? Your board members? Specific staff members? Certain stakeholders? What do you intend to achieve by informing specific people and the team? Would you like to get feedback or input from them? Is there something you want them to start (or stop) doing?
Communicating a no
Make sure you communicate a no, not a failure. Of course, the no can be the result of a mistake made at your end. However, if you start out from looking for a mistake, or for putting blame somewhere (internally or externally), this will hijack the discussion. People will clam up and focus on transferring blame elsewhere. The focus will not be on what can be learned. This approach will get you nowhere, I promise you.
Next, you need to analyze the rejection. Sometimes the rejection letter includes a scoring grid, or an indication of the key reason why your proposal was not successful this time. Some donors use a first come, first serve approach, and stop funding eligible proposals after their available budget is depleted this way. Whichever approach your funder applies, it is good to carefully analyze the reason of the rejection and to extract lessons learned and tips for your team for a next opportunity with this funder or another.
Even if you think you are clear about the reason for rejection, it is important to reach out to your funder. Not to scream and shout at them, but to engage them in a conversation to help you better understand the reasons for the rejection. Any first conversation should focus on you being in listening mode. Make clear you are interested in learning from this experience. Make them feel you value any time they can give you to help you understand where your proposal missed the point. Repeat what they said in your own words and ask for confirmation, to be sure you got it right. Do not start arguing at this point. Just listen, repeat, write down. Be a student, a learner.
Once you have collected input from your funder (or: not-at-the-moment-funder), sit together with the team that designed the proposal. Reflect on all information you gathered, from the letter, from your talk with the donor, maybe from other (un)successful grantees, key stakeholders, etc. What can you learn from this? What tips can you formulate for the next proposal design? Is there anything you might invest in or develop in the meantime? How can you be better qualified or better prepared next time? What and who is needed for that?
Plan of action
Now you know the impact of the rejection. You have information about the reasons for the rejection and have analyzed these reasons with your team and where applicable others. You know what is needed to do better next time. Now you need to plan how you will implement your lessons learned. Make sure you involve all relevant people inside and outside of your organization in this. Make sure you plan for next reflections and sessions, so that you can all follow how the plan is being implemented.
What if I want to appeal ….
It is possible that through your analysis of the rejection and the reasons for it you get the feeling that perhaps a mistake was made in the assessment of your proposal. Or you may feel that the funder cannot have intended for your area of work to be totally not-funded this round (if neither you nor any competitor was successful). In such case, you might want to explore ways of appealing the decision. Your funder will have a procedure for this, especially if it is an institutional one. Make sure you look up the deadlines and terms for this in time and follow these to a T if you decide to go that way.
…. or lobby
Depending on how serious the impact of the rejection is, you could start a lobby for support for your organization or project in addition to your appeal to the donor. If you are well-connected and can mobilize your vast network effectively this may be a workable strategy to deploy. I know of examples where a strong lobby, also involving politicians and influencers, worked well in terms of getting money after all.
Success now versus cost later
Of course, you must weigh your chances of success and the importance of success against the cost of an appeal and a campaign. If your organization will go bankrupt because of the rejection, due to the funding gap it creates, it is important to fight for any money. And it may be worth appealing and/or setting up a lobby to reverse the decision to reject the proposal. The downside is that this can destroy your good relations with your funder. Even if it leads to funding now, as I have seen it can, it may also lead to unwillingness to support you in future. Make sure to invest heavily in relation building at the same time if you go ahead with an appeal.
Be honest: Is your organization relevant?
Key is to be honest with yourself. If your organization will go bust because of one rejection, can you honestly say it is a robust and resilient organization that is meeting a pressing need in the community it serves? Maybe you can say a wholehearted yes to that. Maybe you realize that the mission of your organization has been achieved and that its existence is no longer as necessary as it was at the start. Possibly the needs of the community you serve have changed so much that your organization is no longer relevant.
Be honest: Was your proposal really good?
Similarly, it is possible that a mistake was made in scoring your proposal and that you should have been awarded a grant. But it is also possible that upon reflection you can agree that the idea was good, but the project design could be better. Or possibly, the idea was not so good after all, especially when compared to the ones that did get funding.
So, what to do when your proposal is rejected
In short, you must take time to reflect and be open to all thoughts, findings and conclusions a letter of rejection can bring you. So that you can then plan your future steps sensibly. After all, rejections are part of life but if you are relevant, you must do all you can to generate more approvals than rejections so that you can continue on your mission.