What Does "No" Really Mean?


By Rebecca Vermillion Shawver, MPA

“It always astonishes me the power that we give to the two little letters, ‘n’ and ‘o’. All too often we assume that when combined they always mean never, refused, not possible, or any one of the many other negative connotations associated with the word, “no.”

As a professional proposal writer, I readily admit that I have heard these two small letters pronounced in unison all too often. Yet I seldom remain sad or overwhelmed by their power because I know that no has several meanings, many of which have positive future implications. As a grant professional, I know one thing for certain: This small word does not necessarily mean no forever. Receipt of a rejection letter from any one funding source simply means that an organization will not be receiving a grant contract this time.

To learn the deeper meaning of any specific no, grant developers must delve deeper into the reason for each no. To change a current no into a future yes, they must move forward with an inquisitive mind and a positive attitude. The future of their grant funded programs is dependent upon their ability as grant professionals to recognize, acknowledge and act upon the many meanings of no.

1. No could mean, “We have limited funds available at this time.”:
While a funder may be interested in a project and wish they could have offered a grant contract, oftentimes they simply do not have enough money to financially support all the worthy applications submitted. [Most Donors receive so many requests that they reject 10 for every 1 approved.]

Call the funding source that rejected you and ask questions. One of the most common mistakes made after receipt of a rejection letter is the failure of the grant developer to contact the funder. After waiting two or three weeks, call a staff member at the agency. Politely ask how your application could be improved to increase the likelihood of funding. Keep the tone of the conversation positive. Ask open-ended questions that will prompt the staff person to share their insights and ideas. Typically, staff members are very willing to make recommendations regarding resubmissions. Remember that staff members personally know and interact with the decision-makers. Listen to their advice. You can acquire invaluable information that will increase the likelihood of future grant contracts.

Plan to resubmit the application. Based on the new input and information just acquired, start working on a revised grant application. Don’t wait until the next deadline is looming. Make your changes while the information is fresh and your passion is running strong.

2. No could mean, “We are unfamiliar with the applicant.”:
If the funder is unfamiliar with your organization, they may need to learn more about it. If this is the case, rejected applicants should employ several strategies. Put them on your regular mailing list. Send the funder copies of your quarterly newsletter, newspaper articles about your organization and program, etc. Help them get to know your group. Remember the old adage, People give money to people. Help them get to know your staff, your clientele, and your programs.

Make a personal contact. Call their staff members and get to know them. Provide them comprehensive program information highlighting key outcomes and goals–FYI. Increasing their knowledge of your operation and its’ needs will help them recognize its positive impact on the community. Invite them to visit your program sites. Invite them to visit your organization and to watch your programs in action. By experiencing the day-to-day operation of your programs, staff members will be able to personify the value of its services in a way that is difficult to convey through written words.

3. No could mean, “We are testing applicant’s commitment to their project.”:
Because they are over-asked, funders test organizations ability to rally support for or commitment to a  program plan. Most funders want to believe that they will not be alone in their support of any specific program. They want to know that their investment will be complemented by other resources. So increase matching funds. If limited or no matching funds were offered, acquire additional cash support for a program. Matching funds will demonstrate your organizations and/or the communities support for the program.

Increase in-kind donations. Seek out additional in-kind donations if possible. This can often show an applicants willingness to think outside the cash box and make limited cash resources available for those expenses that require them.

4. No could be a test of idea exploration:
No might mean that the funder wants to explore the program idea in more depth. They may be interested in refining the proposed approach; or, they may want to see additional components included. It is important to remember that most funders have board members and/or staff that keep abreast of the latest trends and best practices established in their focus areas. Through conversations with staff members, applicants may find that a larger grant may be possible if the program concept is enhanced with complimentary or auxiliary services of interest to the funder.

5. No could mean, “No.”:
Of course, there are times that no really does mean no. This is especially true when a funding source has revised its areas of interest or its geographic service district. However, if this is the case, their no can open the door to other possibilities.

6. SO WHAT DO YOU DO: Your Search Should Continue!
Foundations, corporations and government agencies all have specific guidelines and program agendas that they follow. If your program does not fall within the parameters of one, it will surely be of interest to another. Keep searching. If a program plan is based on documented best practices and serves a verifiable community need, it is fundable. All too often great program ideas are lost because staff failed to continue looking for a funding source interested in their plan.

Revise the program concept. Review the program plan. Determine if it can be improved. Don’t forget to review the latest strategies and best practices being employed by others in similar fields. Make the most of this opportunity to strengthen the application.

Consider breaking the program into components. Comprehensive and holistic program plans can oftentimes be very expensive to implement; and large grants can be difficult to secure (especially outside the federal grant arena). If the proposed program consists of several interactive components, consider the option of submitting applications for individual program components. By creating budgets for each component and submitting smaller requests to more than one community-based foundation or corporation, funding options can be expanded.

Submit to other funding agencies. Remember that there are many other funding possibilities beyond your initial choice. Look for them and submit applications to them as soon as possible. Recognize that the failure to acquire any one specific grant contract does not have to result in the death of a great program idea!

So the next time you are confronted by colleagues with sad, disappointed and forlorn faces, encourage them to reflect on the many possible meanings of the word ‘no’ and keep your chin up!

Your organization’s clientele is counting on you!”

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Let Artful Askers help you to help yourself!
Bob Vickers, Artful Askers, Building Biblical Relationships (even with Funders)
P.O. Box 1225
Warrensburg, Missouri 64093
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