A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

When Saying No Can Be Almost as Helpful as Saying Yes

Every nonprofit loves to hear that it received a grant or a donation. Likewise, every nonprofit hates to hear that it missed out on an opportunity for funding.

But do you know what nonprofits hate the most?

No answer.

Sometimes as funders, we get caught up in the day-to-day hustle and bustle of our philanthropy, and we lose track of things. Keeping track of the proposals you love is easy because they excite you. But what about the rejection letters you keep putting off? That’s an item on every funder’s to-do list that falls to the bottom.

Nobody likes to say no, and even when we do muster up the energy or the nerve, we often take the easy road. We send form letters, avoid phone calls, and don’t tell the nonprofits why they aren’t getting the funds they need.

What happens after that? Because nonprofits are persistent by nature, you can expect them to come back with another proposal. Maybe this one is bigger and better, sometimes smaller and more conservative, or maybe it is the same one as before. Why do they do this? Well, sometimes it works in their favor, and they get the grant or gift they were looking for. But, more often than not, it is because we funders didn’t tell them why we said no.

There is another way.

As Scott Brazda writes in The Healing Power of No,

If a prospective funder or grantor is truly in the capacity building business, and really wants to “teach a man to fish,” then the rejection of a proposal (OK, maybe the word “rejection” isn’t the sweetest sounding thing) carries with it tons of positive potential. The proper delivery of your “no” can maximize its potential to become a “yes” in the future, with you or perhaps another funder that has a mission and a passion different from yours.

Nonprofits cannot read our minds. We need to tell them why they aren’t a great fit for funding. If it is just a matter of timing, for example, let them know. A smart executive director, development officer, or grant writer will take note and come back to you when the time is right.

Maybe instead the nonprofit isn’t doing a good job talking about its impact, or something is concerning in its financials, or maybe it just had too many typos in its proposal to make you feel confident about its work. You probably aren’t the only funder who noticed. A conversation about your no will not only help the nonprofit strengthen the proposal it sends to you, but it helps every proposal it sends to other prospective funders.

If the nonprofit’s work doesn’t align with your funding priorities, and you aren’t likely to fund it no matter how perfect its proposal, saying so—and promptly—can be a great gift. If there is one thing many nonprofits need (after money), it is time. Let them invest in something with a better shot at getting them the funds they need.

Having open lines of communications can be awkward at times, but you will help nonprofits to become stronger fundraisers and free up time for you to focus on the proposals that align with your funding priorities.

Content manager Brendan McCormick develops resources and programs for members, focusing on investments and community foundations. Prior to joining Exponent Philanthropy, Brendan worked as the grants and awards coordinator at the National Trust for Historic Preservation; program coordinator for outreach, instruction, and communication at University of Maryland’s College Park Scholars Public Leadership Program; and as a fellow at the Greater Washington Community Foundation.

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