How to say "No" nicely

A considerate approach to rejecting a grant application helps you retain community goodwill and can improve the quality of the applications you receive.

Why bother?

Grantseekers put significant effort into developing each application, when their time and resources are already stretched. When an application is rejected, it can feel as though that time and effort have gone to waste. A considerate, constructive approach to delivering the bad news softens the blow and speaks volumes to the community about the grantmaker.

How to do it

Advance warning

There are many ways you can convey a refusal, but whichever you choose, make sure grantseekers know what to expect. Include information about how you will advise of the success (or lack thereof) of an application on the application form.

Choosing an approach

Depending on available resources and organisational style, communication options include:

  • providing individual notification by email or post (you can ask grantseekers to include a stamped, self-addressed envelope with their application);
  • publishing a list of funded organisations by a certain date (for example, sent by email or posted on your website);
  • providing personalised feedback;
  • providing feedback via a form letter that goes out to everyone;
  • providing feedback via a form letter including an invitation to phone for more detail;
  • providing feedback face-to-face if there were only a few applicants, or if people were invited to apply, or if you expect to work with someone again soon;
  • publishing a "frequently asked questions" document on your website;
  • hosting an event or presentation to provide some insights.

What to say

  • Deliver the news succinctly, and as quickly as possible.
  • Thank grantseekers for the hard work they put into their application.
  • If possible, inform people of their downfalls so they can learn from them (but do think carefully about how appropriate it is to be frank).
  • Where providing detail is difficult, state the overall number of applicants and numbers funded, to show how competitive the process was.

What not to say

  • Don't say, "If you don't hear from us, you didn't get the grant." It may seem like a timesaver, but you will likely end up fielding calls from grantseekers wondering whether there has been some problem with a message getting from you to them.
  • Don't say "sorry." You're not sorry; you tried to achieve the best outcomes, and it's not your fault that there was not an infinite amount of money available.
  • Don't give any impression that the matter is still open; make sure the applicant knows that the decision is final.

If you provide feedback, keep a copy (correspondence or meeting notes). That way you are prepared if any particularly bitter failed grantseeker complains publicly, and you can check whether those oganisations that get feedback perform better next time.

These tips are adapted from The Art of Refusal: Promising Practice for Grant Makers and Grant Seekers, published by the Centre for Charity Effectiveness at Cass Business School, City University London.