How to Turn a "No" From a Foundation Into a "Yes"

"Yes" in white letters on green speech bubble

This guest post is by Lauren Steiner, president of Grants Plus, a Cleveland-based consulting firm.

If you've written several grant proposals in your career, chances are you've heard at least one "no." Foundation representatives report that declining grant proposals from worthy nonprofit programs can be the toughest part of their job. While it may be hard, inevitably there is not enough funding to meet all of the deserving needs.

As grant seekers, it is our job to distinguish between the "no's" that really mean "no, for now" and those that mean "no, never." It is very possible to use a "no" as an opportunity to come back stronger next time. Below are some practical suggestions for positioning your organization to turn a "no" for now into a "yes" the next time. 

Follow up immediately, seek feedback, and listen

Most foundation representatives are very willing to have a conversation following a declined proposal. Immediately upon receiving the declination, try to schedule a debrief conversation with your contact at the foundation. Express genuine interest in learning from the unsuccessful proposal, and listen carefully to what they have to say. Be sure to ask follow up questions to really uncover any weaknesses in the proposal, the program design, or the organization that need to be addressed. 

Keep records of the communication

If you have a debrief conversation with a foundation representative, the insight you gain can be vital to the success of any future approaches to this potential funder. Make sure that you carefully record the details of the conversation while they are fresh in your mind in the file or database. It might be helpful to share the feedback with anyone else involved in preparing the proposal, including other organization staff, leadership, or even partner organizations. 

Respond as promised

Sometimes these debrief conversations spark additional activities for example, if the funder indicated interest in the program despite the decline, you might offer to keep them posted of your progress throughout the year. Seek permission to add the foundation to your e-update list, or set the expectation that you will send an update on your progress in six months. Then make sure you deliver on that promise. 

Be relentless (within reason)

Seek the representative's guidance on whether and when your organization may be eligible to submit another grant proposal to the foundation during this follow up conversation. Do you have to wait 12 months, or would you be permitted to apply again next month or quarter? Is it advisable to submit for the same program, or should it be for something different? You never want to assume a "no" now means a "no" forever unless the potential funder has indicated as such.

Challenge program to make changes if warranted

Sometimes repeated "no's" from potential funders can illuminate the need for substantial changes in a program's design or model in order for it to compete for grant funding. If one or more foundation representative is suggesting program changes, you may need to consider adjusting the program or finding a way to cover costs without grant dollars.

So the next time you get a "no" from a foundation, don't despair! Spring into action with the recommendations above, and you'll be on your way to a "yes" before you know it.

Lauren Steiner

LAUREN STEINER is president of Grants Plus, based in Cleveland. Lauren worked as a filmmaker, attorney, college instructor, and nonprofit development executive before founding Grants Plus in 2007 to help more worthy causes raise more funds. Since then the firm has secured well over $20 million for organizations around the country. Lauren is president of the Grant Professionals Association Ohio–Northern Chapter as well as an active member and former board member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) Greater Cleveland Chapter.