Your Application has been Declined - Now What?
If you’ve ever written a grant, you’ve probably experienced the frustration of spending hours writing what seems to be the perfect Letter of Inquiry, only for your application to be declined. Explanations (if there is one) as to why you were declined are vague or generic, meaning you are no better equipped to apply for a grant again from this funder or another one. It feels like time wasted.
From the funder side, evaluating grant applications is a complex and time-consuming process. RTNF’s grantmaking process is highly competitive, with an average of 10-15% of applicants receiving funding. 80% or more of our applicants are declined at the Primary Application stage of our process.
We don’t want to waste your valuable time, and we want to maximize the use of our time too. To help us all have more time to focus on our missions, RTNF is working to be more transparent and lift the curtain on our grantmaking processes.
The last few grant cycles, RTNF has offered feedback to declined applicants. Particularly among first-time applicants, there were several common problems we encountered. This inspired us to update our website resources and write this blog post, exploring the top 7 problems or mistakes we see in grant applications that can impede the evaluation process and reduce an applicant’s odds of receiving funding.
1. Satisfying one or two criteria, but not all
There are many organizations doing great work that are not a fit for RTNF. If you haven’t already, pause here and take a look at Our Values and the Grantmaking Criteria. Our mission and values may be broad, but RTNF has rigorous criteria for prospective partners. There are no secrets or surprise criteria (i.e. you can see it all on our website), but we do anticipate competitive applicants will score well in all areas, not just one or two.
Last cycle, we had an applicant who had strong financial footing and experienced leaders, but their Strategic Plan didn’t have clear goals and the only impact data provided was the number of people served. Although they scored well in Sustainability and Leadership & Representation, they only scored a 1 in both Strategic Plan and Data Quality on our rubric. Their application was declined.
Keep in mind that often the only knowledge we have about your organization is what’s provided in the Primary Application. For example, your organization might have great leaders, but if no information is shared about them, we won’t have enough information to evaluate that criterion, and it’s unlikely the proposal will advance.
2. The application is focused on the problem, not on how your organization is solving it
Defining the issue your organization is working on is an important piece of a strong application, but it should not be the bulk of the content. We don’t need convincing that homelessness or child mortality is a problem; we do need to know what you’re doing to address it.
The best applications succinctly define not only the issue area, but what segment of the issue the intervention targets, and then quickly move on to explain how their programming is solving or alleviating that problem. What do you bring to the table that other organizations don’t? Applications should also clearly describe the goals, strategies, and expected outcomes of the proposed project or initiative, including a clear plan for measuring and evaluating the success of the project.
3. Growth for growth’s sake
“Scale is not determined by an organization’s size or budget, but by the change it helps to usher in.”
~Sally Osberg and Roger Martin, Getting Beyond Better
Most applicants are seeking funding to grow their programming in some way. While we’re all for impactful programming reaching more people in need, is organizational growth the best way to achieve that goal? Have partnerships with other organizations or governments been considered? Has sufficient consideration been placed on growing and maintaining impact, or is the organization singularly focused on growing delivery? A thoughtful growth plan is imperative for an organization’s long-term success.
Additionally, RTNF is not a perpetual funder, though we typically engage in multi-year partnerships. With our 2031 sunset on the horizon, we want to see strong growth plans that are impact-focused and consider long-term financial sustainability without RTNF funding.
4. Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning (MEL) isn’t happening (yet) or isn’t clear
Rigorous evidence of impact is one of our key criteria. However, we still often receive proposals that don't include citations to program-informing research, report outputs but not outcomes, or report that they do not have data yet, but will have impact data or a completed study in coming years. RTNF seeks partners who already are engaging in MEL activities. If you don’t have strong program data and aren’t well-rooted in peer-reviewed literature, your application is likely to be declined.
Beyond having the data, we want to know how your organization is using the data. How does staff and board use the collected data and new published research to inform programming decisions? Does your organization produce reports or peer reviewed literature that contribute to learning in your sector? How are you sharing data back to the community you serve?
5. Lack of organizational capacity
We want to invest in organizations that have the capacity to effectively manage and implement the proposed project or initiative. If your organization is scaling, we expect staffing to scale appropriately. A lack of capacity in areas such as program management, program evaluation, and leadership, as well as fundraising, can negatively impact an organization's ability to reach their intended impact. Seasoned organizations will always talk about how central the people are to their scaling success.
It’s also worth noting that RTNF is very open to providing unrestricted dollars to our partners. This is an intentional decision on our part, as we want to enable the capacity and staff building that scale plans can require.
6. Cost per impact data wasn’t included
“The cost-per-impact of our program is difficult to quantify...” is a phrase we often see in applications. While it is not possible to conclusively pinpoint the precise cost per impact, we at least like to see that organizations are thinking critically about the principle behind this criterion and can engage in meaningful discussion about what the estimated cost per impact or social return on investment might be. If you’ve never calculated cost per impact, cost per participant is often a great place to start.
So what is the principle underpinning this criterion? Well, we think each organization seeking to use public funding for programs has a moral imperative to provide a compelling reason as to why their program is worth the cost to run it. Why is it more appropriate than another intervention? Perhaps your program isn’t the least expensive route to impact, but it may be serving folks that are even more overlooked or rural than a “cost effective” program. We expect each of our partners to think critically about why they are justified in approaching their work in the way they do from a costing perspective.
7. Lack of representation from the population served
As we work to serve vulnerable populations, we want to make sure their voices are included in meaningful ways. We aren’t likely to fund if all decision makers have a different lived experience than the target population. Competitive applicants have deliberate listening or feedback loops with beneficiaries, seek out their perspective on their board and in staff positions, and demonstrate a deep understanding of the cultural context in which they work. Beneficiaries must be treated with respect and dignity every step of the way.
Even if your organization meets all the criteria and is well-aligned, there's still a chance RTNF won’t advance your application. It’s a bit of a numbers game; we can only fund a handful of partners each year due to our own capacity limitations. Keep in mind that a declined application may not be a “no”, but a “not yet”. We strongly encourage you to request feedback after a declined application so we can provide more details.
We don’t want applying to RTNF to feel like a shot in the dark. We hope this blog post, along with our other resources available on our website, shed a little light on our process. Happy grant writing!