Rejection is always disappointing, but it really doesn’t have to be and if we learn to fail better, we can transform disappointment and frustration into inextinguishable motivation to learn, do better and progress towards our goals quicker.
Rejection and opposition are inevitable when innovating, taking risks or sharing programme proposal ideas with a diverse number of prospective funders and collaborators. Not everyone in the world will have the same priorities and that is a good thing! (What a bizarre world it would be if everyone did). There is opportunity in variety and it is important to value the quality of relationships and alignment of interests as well as the number of partners we try to engage.
So here are a few thoughts on what three questions you can ask yourself when funders reject your proposal. These will help you get the maximum possible learning from failures and transform otherwise disappointing and destabilising events into unique opportunities for growth and programme improvement.
1. Review your work - is all the information you presented clear, complete and necessary?
Deciding what information to include in a proposal, pitch or grant application form can be difficult.
There is often limited time or space, you might have a lot of unanswered questions regarding what aspects of your work your audience will know more about, will be more interested in, and you may just not be sure about how to answer some questions. If your proposal or pitch has been rejected take the time to review your work critically to evaluate whether you included the most appropriate information and then identify what other information you could have included instead.
One approach which I use and find useful, it to put all programme information, thoughts and facts in one document (or on a huge A3 sheet). I recommend then coming back to it after some time and going through the information carefully to decide whether each element is:
a) Critical to understanding the overall intent of the work or message;
b) Presented as concisely and clearly as possible and
c) Answers a specific and critical question.
Any information or data that doesn’t fit any of these categories save in a “for later reference” file. This helps to deal with any attachment one might have to information and ideas that are really exciting to us, but just are not relevant to the proposal being drafted.
The second check I recommend doing is relating to assumptions. Each one of us has many assumptions, ways of thinking, acronyms and beliefs which we take for granted. Often people make the mistake of thinking that everyone else will think in the exact same way as they do. This is not always the case and sometimes projecting our belief system onto others can cause confusion and misunderstandings. If you are unsure of whether someone else might interpret something differently or might not understand it, try to simplify the information, make all your assumptions very clear and err on the side of caution including a bit more detail to make sure that your message can be universally understood.
Once you review your work using these lenses, you may identify areas for improvement that you can use in your next attempt.
2. Is the funder or collaborator you pursued a good fit for your work?
Although cashflow anxieties and financial insecurity can encourage teams to follow all leads and funding opportunities that come their way, it is hugely important to take a step back and always be strategic about which potential partners and collaborators an organisation invests time building relationships with.
Of course, with all the time in the world it can be stimulating and exciting to exchange ideas with as many people as possible, however how we spend our time should really depend on and be linked to our goals.
If the utmost priority and goal it to reach specific funding milestones and secure key partnerships to drive a needed change for our target beneficiaries, it is important to focus on aligned partners. Not all opportunities need to be pursued and those that do, don't all need to be pursued at the same time.
Therefore, if your efforts were not successful take the time to consider whether the prospective funder you approached truly matched your ideal funder profile. Generally, before investing significant time, energy or effort into building a new funding relationship it is useful to make sure you have clear in your mind:
- What your programmes' priorities are;
- What type of partner you would like funding from;
- What type of funding relationship you are seeking and
- What other critical parameters or conditions are essential to the programmes' success.
Once these parameters are clear, they can be used to screen new funding opportunities or evaluate existing relationships that are not going as planned.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions to gauge whether prospective funders might really be a good fit for your work and are truly in it. Time spent upfront deciding what opportunities to pursue, will free up time later for you to invest in funders that are aligned and more likely to want to support your work. Always justify the effort you spend on fundrasing against clear priorities and only focus on partnerships that you truly believe will support your goals.
Remember, this is not personal, but is solely about using your (and the funders) time wisely and carefully so that both get the opportunity to work on the things they are most passionate about, within conditions that work for them.
3. Ask for feedback and integrate it into your work
When you have reviewed your work and understood what parts of it you could have approached differently, it is then time to seek external feedback from the funder rejecting your request for support.
While rejection is not the result aimed for, remember that judgement passed is typically not a reflection of individuals but merely of the work proposed in the way it is currently presented.
Facing rejection is actually an experience that offers us the unique opportunity to embrace, understand and explore perspectives that are different to our own. People commission paid experts to provide perspective and feedback. When faced with rejection from a funder, there is the chance to ask them whether they might be willing to spare a few moments of their time to share more information on why the proposal in its current form was not attractive to them.
This can really help to progress the planning of further work because it can help to unveil parts of the work that are not communicated clearly, gaps in information, risks perceived which may need to be addressed etc.
An honest conversation with a prospective funder will also help to understand their perspectives and concerns and therefore help to recognise more effectively in the future who is a good fit, and what information is essential to getting ideal collaborators on board.
To increase chances of receiving feedback, be respectful of others' time by making it as easy as possible for them to give you the specific feedback you need. For example ask 1-3 specific open ended questions on your performance. Always thank those that take the time to respond and be open to constructive criticism!
Once you have the feedback review it and decide what elements of it are relevant to your work and what actions you want to take to incorporate it. There is of course no obligation to act on all feedback, (you might merely acknowledge it and decide that no action is needed), nonetheless it is still very important to collect and review feedback to ensure you and your team understand what reactions the information you are sharing is triggering in your audience.
There is no such thing as failing. So lets not be phased by the number of times we face obstacles, but instead remain inspired by the future of possibilities that lies beyond them if we have the courage to continue trying.
As Nelson Mandela said, “Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”