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RejectedYou’ve spent tens of hours painstakingly writing that grant proposal that you just knew was an absolutely perfect fit for your organization. You’ve read the instructions three times over, you’ve whittled down your budget to the bare minimum – you’ve even had it reviewed by other people and they’ve done nothing but rave about it.
So, you submitted your grant proposal application and you waited: Patiently. Finally after six long months you get a form letter in the mail – and it says “Thank you for applying, but…” What strikes you in the face like a cold, wet washrag is that’s all it says, no reasons, no suggestions, nothing.  Then your mind goes in twenty different directions at once and you start surgically dissecting the grant proposal in your mind. What did you do wrong? Why did the reviewers not honor your grant request? You worked so many hours and spent so much time grant writing and making sure all of the i’s were dotted and the t’s were crossed. Why was your grant proposal rejected?
A Little Background
First, be aware that funders rarely provide reasons for denying your request. Look at it from their side of things and think about how many proposals they must be receiving and reviewing. They may not have the time or people power to respond personally to every request. The second thing you need to know is that ninety percent of the time, when your grant proposal is rejected it boils down to reasons within five very basic, but very important categories. Since the economic collapse of the US economy, it’s no longer about chasing the money and grant writing; many private foundations simply don’t have the funds they did even five years ago. Now, it’s all about demonstrating need, organizational readiness with well-planned goals and programs with measurable outcomes. These are the real keys to grant writing and winning funding request awards in an economy turned upside down, topsy-turvy and greedy with dollars.
Reason 1: Your Goals Aren’t the Same as Their Goals
First and foremost, the main reason most private funding requests are turned down is because the overall subset of goals of your mission is not exactly in-line with the overall subset of goals of their mission. If the main mission of your organization is broad, say to feed the hungry – that’s all well and good, but did you actually take a close enough look at the breakdown of the inferred foundation mission statement and the overall goals?
A prime example is The ConAgra Foods Foundation. The ConAgra Foods Foundation seeks to partner with impactful organizations that address childhood hunger and nutrition needs in the communities where their employees live and work. After reading the above description and inferred statement about the ConAgra Foods Foundation, stop and ask yourself a few pointed questions.
Does ConAgra have a plant with employees in the community in which you live and seek to offer services? Does your organization address both issues of childhood hunger and nutritional needs? Did you actually stop and define the difference between hunger, and nutritional needs before you applied for funding? Is your mission to simply feed the hungry, or is your mission to feed the hungry children? Does your mission also include addressing nutritional issues? (feeding the hungry and addressing nutritional needs are two different things.) Is your organization a new grass-roots startup with no history of success? If the answer to that question is “yes” – then your organization isn’t “impactful”, because it has experienced no community impact, yet. Many times the nutritional needs of children vary by geographic locale and the grantors are well aware of this.
Therefore, if your organization is a new start-up with no real history of impact in addressing both the hunger and nutritional needs of children; where the nearest ConAgra facility is 200 miles away – your grant proposal application for funding will be denied. One reason ConAgra words things in this manner is so its employees can volunteer within the community ConAgra serves.
Reason 2: Your Organization Either Isn’t Ready or Doesn’t Appear Ready For Grant Funding
The next most frequent reason private funding applications are denied is organizational readiness with well-planned goals. This may sound simple, but rarely in this world are things as simple as face value.
The first thing you need to look at in organizational readiness falls back on your initial IRS application for your 501-C-3. Is your organization a trust, a corporation, or an association? Most are corporations. If so, the question of entity (corporation) structure comes into play. Take a look at your key officers within the structure system. Are the officers diversified? What unique talents directly related to your organization to your officers bring to the table? Do one or two names keep popping up serving various yet unrelated functions? If so, this can be a bright red flag to the reviewers who hold the keys to the safe which holds the money you seek. Foundations tend to use a magnifying glass when looking at key players in any organization and they will do background checks.
Another thing grantors look at is organizational audits performed by independent professional auditing companies who hold no interest in or have no ties to the organization. If your latest audit was conducted by the sister-in-law accountant of one of the board members and the grantor can identify that, it’s an instant disqualification. Sure it saved you a ton of money on the cost of an outside audit, but it also cut your organization’s throat for funding.
Organizational readiness also includes in-depth, well supported studies of specific needs in the service area you seek funding. A prime example of this is a little known town in Alaska with a minority of poverty stricken people, where a gallon of milk sells for $8.50 because it has to be flown in. Chickens and cattle can’t live there because the extreme frigid temperatures are too cold and prohibitive of maintaining outdoor biological life. In this setting, there is a true defined need for milk and poultry to maintain health because the cost of those items is prohibitive in ratio to the town’s average income.
What studies have you done that presents substantiated proof of a demonstrated need – such as affordable milk to a population whose average yearly income is less than $10,000? What documented evidence did you present in your grant proposal that because of the lack of affordable milk, the children are suffering in some way? How is that suffering affecting the community you seek to serve?
Organizational readiness and well planned goals go hand in hand. Do the goals within your mission statement reflect the readiness level of your organization? A goal outcome statement should reflect the overall needed service provided by the organization with definitive action taken to reach that goal.
Reason 3: Program Objectives Which Are Not Measurable
Third on the list of rejection reasons is an ill-defined measurable objective. In defining your goals, do you use realistic definitive measurable objectives? Lack of definitive and realistic measurable objectives are most likely the third most popular reason private funding requests are rejected and sometimes, even ignored. Remember that goals and objectives are two completely different critters. Subsets of objectives make up your goals.
Asking grantor agencies for funding is akin to asking them to make an investment in your organization. Look at it this way, if you were thinking about buying stock in a new company – what would you look at first? Most people would look at the “plan of action steps” involved to assure specific goals are reached. Those “plan of actions steps” are the measurable objectives required to achieve desired overall outcomes, or goals. When determining what your objectives will be, focus on measurable goals and explain the steps required to achieve the goals in a clearly realistic, step by step manner inside your proposal. Remember, a grant proposal is really a type of prospectus which is designed to attract like-minded people to invest in your organization. Those granting you permission to use their money to fund your cause want to know that you are able to quantify your success with their dollars.
Reason 4: Budget Boo-Boos
Next in our rejection popularity contest is the budget. Besides a well-defined thesis statement and specific aims, anomalies in the organizational budget are a strong reason a peer review group will deny your grant request in spades.
Foundation reviewers in general are very financial savvy and can spot inconsistencies and poorly planned budgets a mile away. Many times, the areas of salary, consultant costs and staffing costs will be the most scrutinized. Keep it real and always keep in mind that foundations will not fund your paycheck. Secondarily, expect them to be able to pick up on estimates you take liberties with. In your budget, everything must be cost-direct.
Reason 5: Not Following the Guidelines
Finally, one of the more frequent causes of private funding requests, especially when asking a business foundation for money is simply not following the black and white instructions to the absolute value of the letter. Almost every foundation supplies you with specific instructions regarding the way they want your proposal presented. They do this on purpose to weed out those who either can’t, or won’t follow instructions and to prevent organizations from submitting a one proposal fits all template to several foundations.
When reading proposal instructions, identify the proposal structure outline, format and enclosures all the way down to what side of the page they want specific information listed on. Don’t over-submit supporting documents simply because you believe it might help your award chances, because it won’t.
There you have it in a nutshell. In grant writing, pay attention to the common goals of your mission, organizational readiness with well-planned goals, watch for ill-defined measurable objectives and weak or anomalous budgets – and whatever you do – follow the grant proposal instructions to the absolute letter and watch over-submitting supporting documentation with your application.

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