Bids and proposals

Why grant proposals are rejected (and what to do if yours is)

12 minute read

If you’re new to writing funding bids, you may be wondering if there’s a closely guarded silver bullet that will guarantee success for every proposal.

Well, I’m sorry to say, there’s no such thing.

But the good news is, ask 100 funders the most common reasons they refuse funding requests and they’ll mostly agree on the same ‘classic’ mistakes. That means you can easily avoid falling into any of the worst traps.

A quick note: not all the content coming up will apply equally for every kind of funder. You’d focus more on some areas over others depending on whether you were writing for a government department or a company’s CSR team, for example. I compiled this list with a medium-sized charitable foundation in mind, as that’s probably the least ‘niche’ type of philanthropic audience.

Let’s get started.


1 The project doesn't fit with the funder's priorities

In that poll of why funders (especially large, influential funders) refuse requests for funding, the reason you’ll always find top of the bill is: ‘The proposal doesn’t fit with our priorities.’

Look out for those priorities listed or described on the funder’s website. And while you’re there, also check under ‘guidelines’, ‘themes’, ‘programmes’ or ‘strategy’. Hopefully, you’ll find language that closely mirrors certain key aspects of your project. If you don’t, then it may well be that this is not the funding source for you on this occasion.

When you find those key phrases, do your best to echo them back in your own text. In many ways, you are playing a game here. But, if the fit is natural, then it’s a game that the funder won’t mind seeing. To an extent, they’ll expect it.

It can be tempting to ‘give it a go’ with funders whose grant-making priorities don’t fit squarely with your own objectives, especially if the heat is on to find that elusive, game-changing grant. But if your instincts are telling you there’s a mismatch, trust them. If the problem is clear enough for you to see it yourself, then it almost certainly spells failure.

If the alignment is unclear but you still want to try your luck, summarise your project in an exploratory email or a brief letter of enquiry as a first step. Diving straight into a lengthy, potentially misguided proposal will drain not only your time but also the funder’s. Be aware it won’t take long to gain a reputation for not paying close enough attention to detailed funder guidelines.

Finally, a quick word on innovation. Many funders express a desire to support work that is breaking new ground. There’s a tricky balance to strike on this.

On the one hand, your proposal is unlikely to succeed if it essentially outlines a continuation of business-as-usual operations. On the other hand, funders are likely to turn away from funding work that is so new and left-field that there’s no way (as they see it) of predicting its outcomes. So the optimum proposal lies somewhere in between those extremes. And it would ideally highlight one or two pertinent projects that have been shown to work.


2 You're not yet on the funder's radar

Naturally, every organisation is new at some point. Being new or unknown to your target funder doesn’t guarantee your proposal will fail. But it can diminish your odds. And, conversely, being a known (and respected) quantity will increase your chances of success.

Does the funder you want to approach already know of your organisation and your excellent work? If not, it’s important to pause and ask yourself whether now is the best time to be putting in your proposal at all.

Might it instead be worth investing some time in cultivating more of a relationship with their team first? You could do this by inviting them to an event or two, sending them some examples of your thought leadership or impact reports, or just trying to arrange an introductory meeting.

But, of course, the need for your funding might be so pressing that you can’t wait around for such luxuries. So judge this case by case.


3 The need isn't well defined or compelling

To you, the acute need for your project is probably blindingly clear, but don’t assume that everyone else already sees it that way too. Your proposal has to clearly define the central need for the requested funding and make it compelling. If it doesn’t, then the all-important grant cheque will never be written.

It’s essential to get away from thinking in terms of your needs or your organisation’s needs. Focus instead on the needs of your beneficiaries or target audiences.

A statement like, ‘Our charity desperately needs your support to ensure continued service in the year ahead,’ is unlikely to grab a funder’s attention in the right way. Instead, the reader needs to know exactly how that service will make a positive difference to people’s lives. And ideally you should provide evidence – quantitative or qualitative (or both) – to support your statement of need.

Often, funding requests must be tailored to fit prescriptive application forms. In those cases, you won’t be able to make your own choices about the order in which the content appears. But, when you do have that freedom, always place your compelling explanation of the need for the proposed project up front.

Don’t be tempted to build steadily towards this as a kind of punchline – the reader may never get that far. Whenever possible, start the ball rolling with a strong problem/needs statement.

And try not to focus solely on the positive developments that are needed. Sometimes, you’ll paint a more persuasive picture by turning the lens around to focus on the negative things that could happen if the requested funding doesn’t come in. It’s often easier to be more direct and include a stronger element of urgency in this way.

Consider the following: ‘If this trend continues, and without more funding being made available, we anticipate that in the next year another 5,000 households in the target area will slide into fuel poverty.’ Sentences like this should help the funder to see that allowing the status quo to continue will mean the scale of the problem intensifying. And this could ultimately mean the need for twice as much funding.


4 It isn’t clear how your work will solve the problem

Once you’ve clearly established the problem in your proposal, then you need to make the convincing case that you have the solution to this problem. This means you need to build a clear and logical pathway from the problem, via your project, to the resolution. If you don’t do this properly, then the funder won’t see you as the most worthwhile funding recipient.

We’ve looked before at navigating the hierarchy of terms, including ‘aims’ and ‘outcomes’, that articulate how change happens. It’s essential that you can clearly express how the various activities included in your proposal will achieve a well-defined set of outcomes. These outcomes are what will ultimately stand as evidence that you’ve achieved your project aims and therefore helped to tackle the problem in question.

However you arrive at your particular outcomes, you should always aim to describe impacts that can be lasting and sustainable. The most compelling proposals include an element of impact rolling on into the future.

Think of the ‘Teach a man to fish’ proverb. If the funding you’re requesting will lead to positive outcome X, that’s all well and good. But if outcome X will, in turn, lead to positive outcomes Y and Z, then you may have a far stronger case on your hands.

Wherever possible, try to ensure that all these results will be measurable. It may well be that, because of the nature of the project, you can only hope to evaluate success anecdotally. But remember: any kind of evaluation will be better than none in the eyes of the funder.

As we’ve said, it’s best to avoid focusing on organisational needs. But you should still make sure that the project you’re proposing clearly aligns with your organisation’s mission. Aim to make it abundantly clear that no other group of people is as well positioned as yours to deliver the necessary solution. If your organisation doesn’t have the necessary experience on its own, then make sure you can involve the right partners to complete the picture.


5 There are too many questions about your budget

When you’re asking someone to entrust you with funding, naturally it’s vital to make it clear where that money will go (and why).

This is all about resources – the resources you already have at your disposal and those that you’re requesting in the proposal.

How you propose allocating those resources needs to be justified, which explains why you’ll often come across a required section called ‘Justification of resources’ in funding application forms. But you might be left to your own devices with the document structure. If you are, make sure that you always include that section anyway.

It should help to think of this as a narrative explanation of your budget. You need to clearly and concisely explain how each item of input will contribute to the desired outcomes.

Those inputs can range from the time allocation of a staff member or consultant to the provision of a physical thing (for example, three minibuses or 20 water pumps).

You need to make clear links between the resources going into the project and the resulting outputs. For example: ‘Two project officers working for a month to install 20 water pumps will enable running water for 500 villagers in the target area.’ You should focus on spelling these connections out as clearly as possible in the justification narrative. Then make sure you can support your justification in the way you present your costs in the budget section itself.

You need to work hard in this section to help the reader connect the various pieces together. If you don’t, your proposal could be heading for the ‘We regret to inform you’ pile.

Being ultra-clear in defining the various activities you are proposing is also essential. Ideally, every activity should have a start and end date and a clear place in the overall jigsaw alongside all of the other activities.

If you’re proposing a reasonably complex project, consider grouping your activities under individual outcomes to mirror the structure of your budget. Doing this will give the reader a clearer picture of the areas their funds will support.

So let’s imagine your project aims to improve availability of running water and solar energy in a particular location. Staff time will be shared between delivering those two outcomes. Here, aim to make sure that the time allocation is clearly quantified under each outcome, rather than being left as a single, generalised budget item.

And, if you really want to impress, try creating a Gantt chart to show the sequence of the various activities. This should highlight overlaps and potential bottlenecks, for transparency. Colour-code the chart either to distinguish between your work packages or to reflect areas of responsibility of your personnel.


6 You missed the deadline

This is perhaps the most obvious reason, and one that is sure to result in rejection: failing to get your proposal in on time.

Of course, any of us could spend a year developing and polishing the finest funding proposal ever created – but if you miss the deadline, you won’t win the grant.

The proposal-development process can often be a pretty complex one, especially if it needs to involve multiple contributors and external partners. You might need to secure testimonials or letters of support. Or you might need to source a number of estimates to inform your budget. Navigating these stepping stones can soak up a lot of time.

So always start by creating a timetable, working backwards from the ultimate submission deadline. Build in unambiguous internal deadlines along the way. And make sure everyone involved is clear about their roles and the timing expectations.

If you’ll be leaning on others to check and sign off drafts or if you’re expecting contributions from external partners, make sure you allow enough time for those process loops.

And if the proposal submission process involves an online platform of any kind, avoid submitting on the day of the deadline. Websites can crash under pressure!


What to do if your proposal is rejected

Follow all of this advice in full and you increase your odds of winning. But there’s nothing that can guarantee a win. Sometimes success will be out of your reach through no fault of your own.

You could produce the most polished proposal imaginable, but if the funder’s portfolio is full up or they’ve already allocated all the available funds, your project won’t get the go-ahead.

Whenever this happens, you need to stop and do two things.

First, try everything under the sun to glean some feedback. Feedback is like gold dust, even if the funder sends only a few sentences.

Ideally, try to secure a brief conversation to learn more about the reasons for their decision. Be warned: you’ll often need to work hard to get anywhere. But it is hugely worthwhile if you can gather some insights at this point. It might also pave the way for another, slightly reworked, attempt at a later date.

And that connects with the other thing to always remember if you fail at the first (or second, or third) attempt: be resilient and never give up!

It’s all too easy to file unsuccessful proposals in a drawer labelled ‘No good’. But instead you should be thinking about where else you can take the same ideas. You may need to adjust and repurpose them and apply different nuances to align with another funder’s aims and rationale, but it’s always worth trying. And it’s often possible to go round again with the same funder when the timing works better for them.

The truth is that it’s a highly competitive landscape and you’ve got to work hard to pull the spotlight away from your competitors. But the good news is that all of the variables we’ve covered in this article are entirely under your control. So, accept all those factors you can’t change and focus your mind on those you can.

Good luck and may you nail that next proposal.

Want to equip your team of fundraisers with the skills to write grant proposals that win over funders? Take a look at our Grant proposal writing course or get in touch to talk about your needs.

Main image credit: / Shutterstock


Bids and proposals

Your go-to guide to better writing

Get your own PDF copy of The Write Stuff, the definitive guide for everyone who writes at work.

Get my copy
The Write Stuff

Richard is a proposal writer and fundraising expert with over 20 years’ experience in the charity sector. He's also one of our specialist business-writing trainers.

His fundraising career has seen him engage with individual donors, government funding agencies and international foundations. This experience honed his ability to communicate specific messages to a wide range of audiences – a skill which has helped him lead teams to win multiple seven-figure bids.

He shares his experience and insights in the training room and here on the Emphasis Knowledge Hub.

Was this article helpful?

This helps us make better content for you