Foundations Should Provide Feedback to Declined Applicants
Updated: Jun 23
How Foundations Source Opportunities
Every foundation has a different intake and vetting process. While some require prospective applicants to put together lengthy packets of materials to be considered for grant funding, other funders don’t have any application process at all. Many foundations without applications do a form of quiet due diligence by scouring websites and professional networks to learn about an organization's potential for fit long before opening any conversation with the respective organization. This is a great example of a way that foundations can match their engagement level with each organization’s actual potential for funding, a practice we generally admire as it saves grantseekers’ time.
At RTNF, Any Social Impact Organization Can Apply
RTNF, however, has an open application process. That is, we do not require invitations to apply for funding–any social impact organization can apply (recommended eligibility self-assessment can be found here). There are pros and cons to having an open application process. One benefit is that there is less of a barrier for organizations outside our common pipelines and sourcing channels. This allows us to hear from organizations we wouldn’t have otherwise considered. And each year, RTNF does indeed fund organizations and programs that we’re fairly confident we wouldn’t have found known about without our open application.
However, having an open application certainly has its drawbacks. One unintended negative consequence of accepting unsolicited applications is that we receive a large number of applications–many more than we are able to fund given our staff capacity. Unfortunately, that means RTNF declines some applications. This pains us because we recognize that every application that is declined represents a social impact organization whose time we inadvertently wasted.
Providing Candid Feedback Can Provide Value to Applicants
We recognize that being declined is frustrating and disheartening for applicants, but it shouldn’t also be confusing. With that in mind, we try to be clear about what we look for in applications by sharing descriptions of our grantmaking criteria as well as *the actual rubric* we use to evaluate proposals. We figure that the clearer we are, the better applications we’ll receive and the less time applicants will spend trying to determine what’s in our heads.
Still, while we think being transparent on our website is important, we’re not sure it’s sufficient. For us, it’s also important to offer feedback to declined applicants. Without feedback, a grantseeker could feasibly apply for funding every application cycle without any sense of whether they are a near fit or a misaligned applicant. Declined applicants may wonder about a number of questions, such as:
“Were we at least competitive?”
“How might I communicate our impact or plans more clearly or effectively?”
“Would we be more aligned if I applied for X program or Y program next cycle?”
“Should we reapply?”
RTNF feels we should provide answers to as many of these questions as we reasonably can. Providing feedback also feels like an important gesture to show that we take our applicants and their time seriously.
Providing Feedback at a Level You Can Manage
With an ever-small staff, the constraints on time are always acutely felt at RTNF, but providing feedback is still a priority for us. In that spirit, we do what we can. That means we typically provide feedback via email to any applicant who requests it, letting them know how their application scored and a brief summary of our application review notes.
It only takes a few moments per applicant, which is manageable even for our small team. In our view, taking these few minutes communicates a few important things to our applicants: (1) we value your time, (2) you’re worthy of ours, and (3) here’s how your work is perceived by at least one outsider.
It’s our hope that by providing this feedback, organizations get a rare lens into how their work is perceived and have the chance to evaluate whether they came off as intended, whether they should apply again, and how they can communicate more effectively with us–and possibly others. If we can accomplish this, then even declined applications might not be complete wastes of time.