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  • Writer's pictureMelody B. Hernandez

Interpreting your rejection letter: when to try again and when to cut your losses

Rejections are inevitable in the grant writing world. As a general rule of thumb, a 10% success rate is considered average and a 20% success rate is considered good. It also takes about 3 years of consecutive requests before a funder gives to a new organization. This means we are often inundated with more rejection letters than award letters. This is especially true for new organizations and programs, or when growing and/or diversifying funding sources.

So, how can we tell when a rejections letter means 'try again next year' and when it means 'please cross us off your list'?

There usually are clues to be found in the letter. Funders do not want to waste their time or yours on requests that clearly lie outside of their funding priorities. However, in order for communication to be clear and effective both parties need to be speaking the same language.

Here are some commonly used rejection phrases and their meanings:

We receive funding requests for many worthy projects and are unable to fund them all = Try again. This one is rather vague and doesn't give you much to work with, however they are saying that their rejection has less to do with your organization and/or program and more to do with their limited available fund. They might have more funds available next year, or be more willing to fund your program after they have already become familiar with your name.

It is our policy to not provide any information about why specific requests were declined = Try again. Double check that you fit their funding priorities and guidelines, and that they have funded similar organizations or programs in the past. If you do, try again. No news is good news, or in this scenario, limited information will always cause me to err on the side of caution and try again.

We fund {insert something completely different than your programming} = Cross them off of your list. If you applied for funding for a mural and they respond with, "We fund social service organizations" they are asking to be crossed off of your list. Maybe you see that they have funded murals in the past and their words in the letter do not match their 990. In that case I would assume they have shifted priorities or there was a personal connection to a Board member that caused them to give outside of their funding priorities. Without that personal connection, or any other reason to presume they would want another request for a type of program they do not fund, it is best to save your resources for a better fit.

We reserved the bulk of our funding for programs located in {geographical area you do not serve} = Cross them off of your list. In general, when funders say that they reserve the bulk of their funding for a location or type of programming they mean "unless you have an 'in' with one of our Board members" or "except this one organization in a different location that the founder had fond memories of from a trip they took there in their youth". Unless there is another compelling reason to

We are not currently funding {your type of programming/your location} this year = Check back next year. Some funders change their funding priorities from year to year. If this is the case then you will want to keep that funder on your list and check back for the next funding cycle to assess their new priorities.

We hope to hear from you again = Definitely try again! If they include these words in their rejection letter, circle that name on your list, put some stars next to it, and definitely calendar a resubmission for as soon as possible.

For those funders you do plan on keeping on your list, be sure to reach out to them and get some feedback about your proposal (unless they specifically ask you not to). This can help keep you on their radar and will help in crafting future proposals.

How about you? Do you have any rejections that were unclear in their meaning? Feel free to share your rejections below and let us know what you took away from the letter.

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