[Article] If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again (What to do if your grant proposal is not funded)


When you write a proposal that is denied funding, the first thing to understand is that it’s not the end of the road.

So, you spend a lot of time writing a grant proposal. Or, you spend a lot of money hiring someone to write a grant proposal. You stay up late several nights getting the package together, or proofreading it and providing data to the grant writer if you hire someone (Hiring a grant writer does not mean you don’t do any work. You still need to provide them with information and direction), and when you finally get it off to the funder you feel pretty good. You feel like your organization aligns perfectly with the funding, that the narrative was well-written, that the partnership and supporting information are all on point and the more you think about it as you drift off to sleep, you think that there is no way that you will not be funded. They have to fund it. What you sent in was great. But alas, a few months later you receive a denial letter.

Despite what some grant writers and grant writing companies tell you, the fact is that most competitive grant proposals are not funded. I like to describe grant writing like baseball. In baseball, if you have a batting average of .300 you are hitting at an All-Star level. This means that you only get a hit 3 out of 10 times that you step up to bat. You do not get a hit 7 out of 10 times that you step up to bat. Still, the .300 hitter is among the best in the game. For grant writing, in my experience, the numbers are similar. If you are writing multiple grant proposals over a period of time (in the case of the company I work for we write around 150 proposals per year), you are going to lose more than you win. However, it is not a total loss when a grant proposal is not funded and in many cases I would suggest that it is not a loss at all.

So what now?

First, many grants will be released again in the next year and allow you to resubmit your proposal with adjustments. So the first thing to do after receiving a denial is to request the “Reviewer Notes” if they do not automatically send them. Sometimes they are included in your denial letter, sometimes you have to request them and sometimes they don’t provide them at all.  Reviewer Notes are basically the score sheet. A funder will have grant reviewers for a grant competition. The reviewers should be given clear criteria to review proposals against. Often there are sections scored 0-10 and each reviewer (there are usually 3) will provide a numerical score for the section along with a narrative explanation. If they do not provide them and will not, ask to set up a call with someone to discuss your proposal. It is helpful to get some input as to where they felt that you hit the mark and where they felt that you did not.

Sometimes these notes are extremely helpful and other times not so much. You need to determine two things. First, are they accurate? We have had reviewer notes that seem to be factually inaccurate. For instance, a reviewer might say that you did not include something that you did. You can set up a call and challenge them but in my experience nothing has ever come of that. They just tell you to resubmit in the next round. That will make you angry, but at least you know you don’t need to change anything and when you resubmit there should be different reviewers that will not make that mistake. What you should do here is tighten up the writing, update and add partners and include any new evidence that defines the problem you are solving or contributes to your program effectiveness.

Second, if they are accurate and they identify shortcomings you need to ask yourself if the problems are worth fixing. Sometimes you apply for something that isn’t a great fit for your organization and you may not have realized it at the time. Maybe you really did not have the capacity to carry out the activities required. Maybe that area of programming is saturated in your market and what you proposed is not needed. There are a lot of reasons you may want to move on to other funding opportunities. But now you know. So you learned something.

Once you determine what you need to fix and that it is worth fixing, you have a leg-up on the next round because you have a written proposal, you should have partners in place, an articulate program with measurable outcomes, and you should have input from the funder to make adjustments. Our company award rate of about 30% goes up to 40%-50% the second time around when we make good decisions with our clients to fix something or not. (Continuing our baseball analogy, a 40%-50% lifetime batting average puts you in the conversation for one of the best of all time and definitely gets you in the Hall of Fame).

That National Institute of Health identifies some common fixable problems in a grant proposal. From their article:

“Many people succeed after revising and resubmitting because they can address the problems identified in the summary statement (Reviewer Notes).

Here are examples of fixable problems.

Problem: Poor writing, formatting, or presentation
Solution: Rewrite; get help with writing, editing, formatting, and presentation.

Problem: Insufficient information, (program) details, or preliminary data
Solution: Assess what’s missing; add it to the Plan.

Problem: Significance not convincingly stated.
Solution: Beef up that section; show the importance of (your) mission, your area of (service), and (the overall benefits to the community you serve).

In conclusion, when you write a proposal that is denied funding the first thing to understand is that is not the end of the road. If you get funder input and you think about improving areas that you realize need better development and explanation, you may be halfway home to winning the funding. You can think of it as a two or even three year application process. But you must be honest with yourself when determining if the funding is something that you should be applying for.

Finally, additional benefits of writing an unfunded proposal in addition to the opportunity to re-apply is that you have been through a process of really articulating your program and what you are trying to achieve. This is going to make you a more effective organization and in a much better position to apply for other funding opportunities. If you haven’t applied for any grants before you also probably learned about things like logic models, measurable outcomes and program evaluation.

By going through the process of compiling data, getting partnership letters, and articulating a coherent program with measurable outcomes, you should be in a much better place than when you started, even if you did not get awarded the money.

Good luck in your grant writing.

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