Grant Denied? Six Ways to Build From ‘No’

It seemed like a match made in heaven:  your mission, their money. Maybe you met the program officer at a conference or “Meet the Grantmaker” session and clicked. Or their foundation tends to fund groups just like yours. You were really, really excited about this one. But when it came time for the grant decision? They just weren’t that into you. 

So what do you do next? 

Don’t give up! Winning over foundations can take years – but it can be worth the effort and the wait to finally get funded. Here are six follow-up tactics that I have seen help groups successfully move past an initial ‘no’ from a funder. 

First off, if possible, find out why your proposal wasn’t funded. See if your program officer will advise you on how to improve your ask. This should NOT be an opportunity to advocate for your project, school the foundation staff in what they got wrong, or argue with their assessment of your work. Instead, try to get a sense of in what ways your proposal was not in alignment with their grantmaking priorities, where their interests are headed, and what you could do to be a stronger applicant. If you had a site visit, ask how you could improve that aspect for funders in the future. The purpose of this call is partly to understand if there’s anything you could do differently next time, and partly to build your relationship with the foundation staff by establishing yourself as someone interested and willing to learn and grow.

Second, keep in touch and keep building your relationship with this funder. Your aim is to have them see you as integral to the work happening in their area of interest, and also to build buzz and credibility for your project. Here are some ways to do this:  

  1. Add the program officer and other foundation staff you interact with, including administrative personnel, to your email/newsletter blast list
  2. Send the program officer periodic snail-mail notes attached to press clips or other cool printed materials that reflect well on your organization (maybe quarterly)
  3. Six months or so from now, check in via phone or email to let the program officer know about one or two bits of awesome news about your growth, fundraising success, or programmatic expansion into an area of deep interest for him or her. 
  4. Attend (within reason) conferences and other gatherings where foundation staff are presenting
  5. Invite the program officer to attend any panels, conferences or other events where you are presenting
  6. Get any partner or ally organizations also supported by this funder to casually mention you to program staff during a site visit or other meeting they are having with the foundation, or to send a “heads up” email to the program officer about how your project is great and they should keep a lookout for you as a possible grantee

A year or two after this relationship-building, re-apply – and specifically address anything they told you in the debrief about why your proposal wasn’t funded, as well as describing how your organization has grown and become even more amazing in the past year. 


Got a success story about getting funded after an initial rejection? We want to hear it! Email

Cynthia Freeman, senior program director at Community Partners, has also worked as a foundation program officer.