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I Didn't Get the Grant - Now What?

By Chris LaPage
February 2012

Many people submit their grant application and anticipate the end of the process: notification from the funder on whether funding is approved. Of course, those who win awards understand that the notice is not the end, but a transition to a new phase in post award administration and project deployment. Unfortunately, many who are denied funding simply accept the fate of their application as the end of the road. Being notified that an application has been denied funding may be a depressing setback, but is should never be viewed as the end of the grantseeking process. Some of the most successful organizations at pulling down grants don’t win every time they submit an application. Successful organizations are denied funding and ask themselves: How do we pick up the pieces and move forward? What follows are three tips to consider the next time you are denied funding:

1. Nobody has ever won a grant award by throwing a pity party – adopt the right attitude!
Subsequent success starts with adopting the appropriate mindset. It’s normal to feel some level of disappointment with a negative funding decision on an application for which you have devoted countless of hours of time and energy. However, once you are over the initial disappointment, your future success hinges on taking a more optimistic perspective. There are many valuable lessons to take away from the process but the decision makers must have the appropriate mindset to move forward. Start with the assumptions that there are lessons to be learned and begin analyzing the process and outcome to garner feedback. At this point you need to take the perspective of an outsider and view your original proposal through a critical lens. Once you identify where the original submission went wrong, you can begin to consider next steps and moving forward with your grantseeking efforts.

2. Utilize reviewer feedback and commentary.
How do you figure out where the original proposal went wrong? Your greatest asset at this stage, if available, is feedback directly from the team that reviewed your application for funding. Many federal grantmaking organizations provide reviewer feedback, commentary and scoring to applicants. Commentary directly from the reviewer removes a lot of the guesswork that you may encounter when trying to conduct an assessment on your own. Furthermore, it gives you insight into how a reviewer approaches the scoring process, which will be valuable information for any future proposal you develop. Make a list of the gaps and weaknesses that the reviewer identified and begin creating strategies to address those areas. Some of the weaknesses in the proposal may simply be a result of missing or unclear information. Sometimes what is clear to the folks in the trenches does not make sense to an outsider. In other cases, the reviewer may be pointing to deeper-rooted issues that require you to go back and do some project development. Perhaps they identified a potential challenge that would require you to build a mitigation strategy into the project plan. Analyzing the reviewer feedback and incorporating it into your project plan and future proposals will put you in a good position to secure funding for the project at some point down the road.
If reviewer commentary and feedback are not automatically supplied to you with the funding decision, you should explicitly request it from the grant maker. If the funder is an arm of the government and they are reluctant to provide such information, you can move forward by formally requesting the feedback through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). More information on FOIA requests can be found at http://www.foia.gov/.

3. Don't think of it as a waste of time - Reuse what you have written.
The moral of the story is that there are other options on the table. Many federal and state grant opportunities are cyclical and available on an annual basis. If the grant program was a one-time deal, there may be similar programs or private foundation funding available to support the project. With billions of dollars available in grant funding ever year, you can be confident that another opportunity exists. Furthermore, while your application may have been denied, you now are in a position where you have a substantial narrative and budget formulated to articulate your project. This is a tremendous resource to have available when moving forward with other funding opportunities.

Well-written and dynamic proposals sometimes are denied simply due to limited availability of funds. Moving forward with subsequent funding opportunities will not require you to start from scratch. If you are able to do an honest analysis and incorporate reviewer feedback (see tip 2), your written materials will be reusable. Every grant program will require you to do some tailoring to address specific objectives and goals they are targeting. They also may require the narrative to be structured differently than your original proposal. However, the bulk of the heavy lifting has already been completed with your original proposal that was denied funding. In this case, start thinking of your failed submission as a resource rather than a waste of time.