Responding to a Letter of Rejection: Priorities, Process, Procedure and Politics

rejectedThis week I received a phone call from a colleague who wanted my advice about how to respond to a grant rejection letter he had received from a foundation. He was assisting a nonprofit organization in preparing a proposal seeking funding for an innovative program reaching out to victims of family violence. After the proposal was rejected he dashed off a letter to the director of the foundation complaining about the funding process, and he wanted to know what I thought he should do next.

His reason for contacting me was to discuss the damage control needed to be done in response to his sending the letter, because he thought it might have employed a harsh tone. Having received support from this foundation in the past, he was concerned that this letter might damage his connection to the foundation and harm his client’s ability to receive funding from it in the future. He assumed that sending the letter was an inappropriate thing to do. I suggested he read the letter to me and explain his concerns to me.

From the beginning of the conversation I could tell from the sound of his voice that he thought he had created a grave error in writing to the foundation director and in expressing his opinion about its grant decision-making process. He had several concerns about the process, which he addressed in turn. First, a site visit to the nonprofit had been planned and then canceled when the foundation changed its travel plans. Second the funding decisions were made solely on the basis of the materials that the agency submitted with the grant application. There was no discussion or opportunity for the nonprofit’s board members or staff to engage with the foundation’s representatives. Third, the letter to the agency stating that funding was denied included no explanation as to the reasons or what was lacking in the application.

My colleague was disturbed both by the foundation’s process and the lack of information he received. His immediate response was to send a letter asking for information about the reasons the grant application was not accepted. I read it and found that it stated very clearly the agency’s disappointment and reviewed the fact that the site visit had been canceled when the foundation’s plans changed. He continued by saying that it would be very helpful if the agency could receive some feedback from the foundation’s leadership as to why the grant application was not approved.

If a letter of rejection is not informative and does not convey information that can be helpful to your nonprofit, then either volunteer or professional leaders should feel free to pursue the issue and request feedback. As with my colleague it is often the way you ask rather than what you ask that is important. My colleague asked important questions in a diplomatic style, and I hope he will receive a response from the foundation.

Often foundations do not appreciate how important it is for agencies to gain insight into the reasons why grants are denied. For example, if an agency misreads the foundation’s priorities it will help knowing that when it submits an application in the future. In other cases, the grant application did not make the case strong enough for the foundation leadership to decide to make the funding available; knowing this will also assist the nonprofit in the future.

The language of grant applications often refers to the partnership between the funding body and the nonprofit. Many foundations see themselves as partnering with nonprofits in the provision of services in the area of health, education and welfare. This partnership should begin with the grant application and not with the granting of the requested funds. Thus, foundations should be committed not only providing to funds for services but also to strengthening nonprofit organizations through their evaluation of their grant applications.

When a grant application is approved it does not mean the foundation agrees with everything the agency is doing, and it is not unusual for a foundation to stipulate specific conditions when granting funds to a nonprofit. Agencies accommodate the foundation’s requests by acceding to and implementing their recommendations. Today many foundations require an evaluation process as a stipulation to receive funding.

A rejection letter from a foundation should be read on three levels. The first is to understand the foundation’s priorities in making the decision not to fund a particular program or project. The nonprofit can learn a great deal from receiving feedback as to whether its proposal was an appropriate response to the foundation’s funding priorities. The second level is confirming that the nonprofit was adhering to the foundation’s process in the way in which it submitted the application requesting funding. The third level is clarifying that all the correct procedures were employed in the grant application. If the rejection letter addresses all three levels, then it will provide sufficient feedback for the nonprofit to determine whether the content, priorities, and process of the application were appropriate and worthy of funding.

However, there is a fourth level as well – politics – which has an impact on funding decisions. Often in foundations the politics of the board and volunteer leadership influences decision making. In some cases, the denial of funding is more a reflection of the internal workings of the foundation’s decision-making processes than of the quality of the application. Very rarely is this information shared in a letter of rejection, but nonprofits should always be aware of the potential impact of politics on the grant-making process.

I suggested to my colleague that his letter to the foundation was necessary and appropriate, and that no damage control was needed. We cannot expect to receive the valuable information we seek if we do not ask the needed questions. It is important to view the letter denying a foundation grant as a learning opportunity.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening nonprofit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.

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  1. Carmi says

    It would be nice if foundations were as transparent in their decisions as they expect applicants to be in their applications.

  2. says

    As one who sits on the other side of this table, and in fact teaches funders about appropriate processes, permit a few comments:

    1. It is fair game for an organization to ask if there is anything for them to know which would be helpful to them. I would have recommended a simple phone call asking that and not trying to make a written case that the foundation’s process was flawed. After all, as much as an organization is proud of what it does and wants to show off, there is nothing that says a site visit is required or even best practice in every case. The foundation may very well have had all of the information it needed to make the determination.
    2. It is important for organizations to recognize the sheer number of applicants for grants. And many of those are indeed within guidelines. Many foundations try very hard to be helpful and to give useful information to grantees, and the vast majority work very hard to make careful and thoughtful decisions. Often there really isn’t any specific suggestion since the rejected request may have been fine but didn’t get funded for all sorts of reasons [politics may be one but less so than the author may think, so is the need for geographic funding balance or internal priorities or any of several other reasons which would not have been useful or comforting to the rejectee. Far too many rejectees raise questions which are virtual requests for reconsideration, arguing that the foundation must not have fully understood or respected them or followed some fair process. Perhaps the foundation may indeed have misunderstood or overlooked some process, but that happens very, very rarely these days. And coming across as a protest surely doesn’t endear the potential grantee to the funder for future consideration.

    3.Moreover, far too many potential grantees read constructive suggestions as a virtual promise of future funding, leading many within the foundation world to be very careful in what they say and how they say it.

    4. Transparency in foundations is a complicated issue [I have written about glass pockets in the past and tried to articulate various levels of transparency.] Surely any competitive process should be absolutely transparent, but it is by no means persuasive that decisions need to be publicly defended as long as they are consistent with the published or articulated process.

    I fully understand and appreciate how dependent the non profit world is on gifts, grants, contributions, and support, and how disappointing it is when that support doesn’t come. And in my advising and teaching, I do try to emphasize how crucial it is that a funder be sensitive to that in all of their dealings. But it is also important for potential grantees to understand that they might have done everything right and still not been funded. No foundation, even the Gates Foundation, can fund everything, and hard decisions will inevitably lead to disappointment more often than not. After all, in the foundation world, eligibility is not the same as entitlement, and thus judgement, wise or flawed, is always going to play a role.