April 7, 2009

Love’s Labour’s Lost: Dealing with Rejection

For those among you who have worked with The Grant Plant for several years, you might know that this half of our sister-owned business (the Tara half) has a background in the arts, specifically, theatre. No, I wasn’t onstage dressed in period costumes and waxing and waning about love. I was a stage manager, the director’s right-hand woman. It was my job to coordinate everything happening behind the scenes, to problem-solve, to keep everyone on budget and on task, to maintain the integrity of the director’s vision, and other great tasks that I loved.

In hind sight, being a stage manager was a good primer for being a grant writer. But that’s not my point for this article.

Throughout my years in theatre, my actor and actress friends would audition time and time again, pouring their all into a two-minute monologue and a cold reading. Sounds strikingly similar to a letter of inquiry and a site visit, doesn’t it? Sometimes they’d get the part, sometimes they were invited to meet the director and the design team over drinks, sometimes they’d get a callback, and sometimes they were told “thank you” before they had even completed their monologue. They’d tell me, “You don’t know what this rejection feels like!”

Perhaps at the time I didn’t know what that rejection felt like, but after six years of being in business as a grant writer, I can tell you that we’ve received our fair share. (In the interest of shameless self-promotion, we haven’t received as many declines as we have awards, so don’t let my “confession” throw you.) So how does rejection feel? Well, around here, we read grant proposals day in and day out and we never ship anything out until we say, “How could it not get funded?” So of course it’s hard not to take it personally when we hear that we were told “thank you” before we finished our monologue… and even more so when we’ve been to three callbacks and happy hour with the director.

Just as my theatre friends licked their wounds and put all their effort into trying again, that’s what we advise the organizations with whom we work. What can you do when you receive a letter of declination? Here are some ideas:

  1. If the letter lists a program officer by name and phone number, take a moment to phone them and ask about your submission. Sometimes the answer is no for now and sometimes it’s no forever. It’s important to find out which it is. If it’s no for now, find out what could have strengthened your proposal or what would help that funder offer support in the future. If it’s no forever, thank them for the assistance they’re giving the nonprofits that they are able to fund and the impact they’re making in their field. You can now focus your energy on more promising ventures.
  2. If the funder discourages phone calls, send a letter thanking them for taking the time to review your submission and sympathizing with the difficult decisions that program officers face. I’ve been on grant review committees and that is one hard job.  All foundations will acknowledge that there are more requests for money than there is money to grant; the foundation will appreciate that you value others’ challenges in the field of philanthropy and perhaps remember your organization during future reviews.
  3. If you feel that a phone call or follow-up letter is not in anybody’s best interest, take what you can from the experience and put it to good use. You have likely created a proposal that will be valuable elsewhere; you also might take another look at your proposal and fine tune certain areas.  Keep applying! If you never submit any requests then you know you’ll receive nothing, but if you do keep trying, there is a much greater likelihood that you will receive some level of award – the Grants Office (a private company in New York) reports that one in six proposals (17%) will receive funding. (Another shameless self-promotion: At The Grant Plant, our success rate varies from year to year between 55% to 69%.)

When you believe so passionately about what you’re doing and how you’re doing it, it hurts to find out that someone else is unable to financially endorse those efforts. But have hope. There are those out there who believe in you and who have the means to support their convictions with grant funds. They understand that if they give you funds, you will improve lives. When you improve lives, you improve community. When you improve community, you improve the livelihood, dreams, and impact of your funder. Like Shakespeare would say, “the wheel comes full circle.” (Yes, that’s a quote from King Lear.)

Contact: Tara Gohr, President/CEO,  tara@thegrantplantNM.com



Shakespeare, W. Love’s Labour’s Lost as commonly referred to in the Third Folio.

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