Cowboy Up: What To Do When Your Grant Is Rejected

Public Safety Grant News and Tips by, Kurt Bradley, Certified Grants Consultant

The letter has just arrived from the funding source! You have been sitting on pins and needles for months now, waiting to hear if your grant was funded or not. You open the letter…

But the news is bad. You’ve been declined funding.

What Are You Going To Do Now?

Outside of the string of epithets being hurled across the station house, stop and take a breath. Resign yourself to having lost a battle—but remember that you have not lost the war.

There are other methods, funding sources and alternatives. You can cry in your beer, lamenting and deciding that grants are not worth all the hard work you just did. Or, you can suck it up, grab the bull by the horns, and climb right back on that bucking bull!

Competition for grant money is fierce, and this is not a place for wimps or crybabies. You took one on the chin? Big deal! You didn’t get knocked out. What are you going to do now, throw in the towel?

No, sir.

Cowboy up, buckaroo!

Learn From Your Mistakes

Government agencies and the private sector are both notoriously famous for just sending a “blanket” letter of denial to you. They may or may not tell you in the letter what you did wrong or why they refused to fund your project.

Sometimes you have to read between the lines of what they send you, or pay attention to subtle details.

Look for clues such as “your program does not meet our current priorities.” A message such as this means you failed to address the funding source’s priorities. Go back over the original RFP or NOFA and critique yourself on how your application addressed or failed to address those priorities. It’s their money, and if you want their money you must always first meet their priorities.

Sometimes you can tell by the date you received the letter. For example, if you had received a rejection letter from FEMA regarding the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program within the first 3-4 months after submitting the grant application, you could almost bet that your grant never made it through the initial computer scoring process. Therefore, your grant was not considered to be “competitive”. That means a human being never even read it!

Examine the numbers that you put into the questions at the beginning of that application process. Many of the departments I have talked to, that received rejection notices, had placed a “0” in the “number of firefighter injuries or civilian injuries occurring from fire” columns. But the grant’s main stated priority was to “prevent civilian and firefighter injuries and increase firefighter safety.”

Too many chiefs were worried that their Workman’s Comp insurance would go up if they reported their actual injuries, no matter how minor they were. In this particular instance, failure to show that you had any injuries hurt your chances for funding from a source that had firefighter safety as a primary objective. The Workman’s Comp issue was actually a non-issue; they were not the ones reading your grant application.

If you have a friend at the Federal or State level in one of the funding source’s offices (remember what I’ve said before about making contacts), try to call them and get their feedback on what you did wrong. Honor their confidentiality with you, and take what they tell you to heart.

Remember: they have no reason to withhold grant money from you. Rather, it is their job to give the money away, but it is your job to make a convincing case of need for why you deserve a piece of the pie.


Just as a cowboy has to learn to climb back on the bull that bucked him off, you must be just as persistent.

There is always more than one funding source. There are always other grants to be applied for. Rejection of your grant by one funding source does not necessarily mean it will be rejected by another funding source. Sometimes, the reason your application is rejected is simply because the funding source had run out of money!

Let’s face it, when you have 1,500 grants to give away, and 18,000 agencies apply, someone has to win, someone has to lose. “No”, does not mean forever, it may simply mean, “not this time.” Try again! I have seen grant applications rejected 2-3 times, then get funded on the fourth try—without the applicant ever changing a word of the grant application.

First thing you need to realize is that a good grant writer in the US right now only wins about one out of every six grants that they submit for; and that’s a good experienced grant writer we are talking about. If you have won even one out of six, you’re doing well. The more you apply for, the more you win.

You just can’t give up. Try and try again! Don’t feel bad that your first couple of tries at the grants game result in a rejection notice. Live and learn.

Critique The Application

Give a couple of copies of your rejected grant to others in your community.

But don’t give it to another officer in your department or your City Manager. Give it to the local high school English teacher, or that friend of yours who is a bank vice president. (You can also send it to me, and I will look at it for you.)

Ask their opinions and listen to what they tell you. This is a process that I always recommend you do before you submit the grant. However, if you did not do this to start, perhaps you should now. The lessons learned from this exercise can be eye-opening.

Maybe you got too technical and the average Joe could not understand the jargon. Perhaps you did not paint a clear enough picture of financial need. Keep an open mind about their feedback, and remember that they are trying to help. Sometimes the best form of help you can get is a critical review of what you did wrong.

Rejection is a hard pill for anyone to swallow. Too many of you walk away after being rejected, and this is simply the wrong tactic to use. Get over it and get on with it! The effort you expend will eventually pay off, and one day, that letter from the funding source will be telling you your grant was funded.

Photo: Sean MacEntee