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How to Flip a Decline Into a Potential Grant Win?

Updated: Jun 1, 2022

We all hate the dreaded canned email: “We received a record number of applications…”

blah, blah, blah

“so many worthy programs, but limited funding…”

yada, yada, yada

"...we regret to inform you that your application was not selected for funding."

Now, this part is all we wanted to know, right?

For most nonprofits looking for grants, this is not great news. Many nonprofit leaders may feel discouraged but fear not. The decline letter is not the end of the story. The reality is, many funders may not fund your proposal for many reasons, both known and unknown, and some beyond your control:

  • it's your first time asking, and they need to learn about your organization

  • It’s not your first time asking, but they need some time to learn about your organization

  • the timing of your application does not align with the focus areas of the current funding cycle

  • they are interested in supporting your cause, however they ran out of budget dollars

  • they just gave to another organization down the street doing similar work and need geographical diversity

  • they loved your idea but did not clearly understand how your work ties to community impact (this is within your control)

Many may or may not know I started my career as a grant professional as a Program Manager at a corporate foundation. Based on my experience being on the other side as a grantmaker, here are some tips to flip a decline into an opportunity:

  1. Find out why you were declined. There is no better experience than finding out your shortfalls and learning from them.

  2. Send a thank-you note/email. Yes, even before you receive a decision. This helps build rapport and position a follow-up.

  3. Look at who was funded. Examine the scope and size of the organization and programming. How does this stack up against yours?

  4. Build multiple relationships with staff members throughout the Foundation. In addition to people moving jobs every few years and it’s good to have a few relationships at any one organization, gaining insight on your proposal from a few different folks works wonders.

  5. Make sure you time your ask appropriately. The best time to position your ask is when funders are finalizing their budgets at the end of the year. They are more likely to earmark your organization for dollars in the new year.

  6. Consider getting professional help. A seasoned grant writing firm like Think and Ink Grants (R) can help strategically align your proposal and help deploy a relationship-building strategy.

For a select few that follow these steps, a decline letter is the beginning of the story and opens the door to new funding opportunities. Some may say, "Well, this may not work in every situation. Sometimes there is no way to follow-up or there is no contact information provided."

Although this may sometimes be the case, let me share a recent success story:

With smaller foundations that review applications during their regular board meetings, you may luck up and get a response from a human being, not an automatic email. The last time this happened with one of our clients, the email signature included the Board Members' name, email address, and phone number. Eureka! This created an opportunity to follow up and have a conversation to learn more about how to reposition the application for future submission.

This situation doesn’t happen all the time. However, when and if the opportunity arises, you now have the tools to take advantage of it and turn a decline into a potential grant win.


Shavonn Richardson, MBA, GPC is Founder and CEO of Think and Ink Grant Consulting™. She is a grant professional, an active speaker, and serves on the Board of Directors for the Grant Professionals Association.

Shavonn earned a BBA from Howard University and an MBA from Emory University. She earned the GPC (Grant Professional Certified) credential from the Grant Professionals Certification Institute in 2020.

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