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Disrupting Declination 

An Innovative Intervention for Grant Gridlock

Feedback can be harder to find than funding which can leave authors dejected following a declination. Most funders do not provide feedback to rejected grant proposals and are understandably focused on their selected grantees. Even if a foundation or grantmaker does provide detailed feedback to grantees, it is often cursory and unhelpful and  the power dynamics at play make the entire process awkward and difficult. 

In many other sectors,  a thorough review process is considered essential. Novelists have editors, doctoral candidates have thesis advisors, engineers conduct stress tests, actors take notes during rehearsals, academics and scientists submit their work for peer review, legislative bills are debated and commented on before they become laws. Great review makes for great proposals. 

Since 2015, Unfunded List has independently reviewed over 1100 proposals and we have found our coordinated and comprehensive proposal evaluation program to be a tremendous service to proposal authors at all levels of experience. In addition, dozens of inclusive grantmakers from a variety of sectors (from SOLVE at MIT to the Circle for Justice Innovations to Kettering Family Foundation) have found value through co-review partnerships with Unfunded List.

In 2024, we are partnering with the global platform KujaLink to review international development proposals as well as the Dental Trade Alliance Foundation to review proposals from the U.S. related to oral health care. We piloted the project over 3 years with SOLVE at MIT using funding from The MacArthur Foundation.

Grant Proposals Are the Worst Way to Fund, Except for All the Other Ways

At their best, grant proposals help organizations working in public service to communicate their needs to funders. At their worst, they are useless bureaucratic tools that waste time and drain funding from the sector.

Consider a small and hypothetical program that offers a dozen $10,000 grants each year. Let’s say the program receives 100 applications. These applications take dozens of hours to write and then more hours to be reviewed, sorted, and selected. The vast majority will not be successful and not compensated for their time. Paid just the minimum hourly wage, the cost of this program would eclipse the total amount of the grants several times over. The declination process alone would consume valuable time and resources. No wonder many thoughtful funders choose to accept proposals on an invitation-only basis.

The fundamental challenge facing philanthropy is the administrative burden. Consider the real-life example of Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage who, after her husband Russell Sage died in 1906, became one of the world’s wealthiest women. When she announced her intention to donate her wealth, she received an overwhelming 20,000 letters in just six months. In reaction to Sage’s experience, many philanthropists developed specific parameters for their giving programs, often guided by academic, civic, and religious organizations. The Russell Sage Foundation, founded in 1907, is still making grants today.

The best grant proposals are the result of collaborations between grantmakers and community-based organizations implementing solutions based on input from the community being served. Collaborations based on strong relationships  such as these have built countless community institutions such as schools, museums, parks, hospitals, libraries and more. This sort of philanthropic collaboration has also advanced racial and social justice, something we wrote about a few years ago in our piece on the Fundraising of Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Even critics of the grant proposal process must acknowledge it as essential to the philanthropy sector today. And those looking to make change and needing funding to do so will likely need to write grant proposals. After initially not requiring them, MacKenzie Scott began accepting proposals last year and she eventually awarded many fine organizations (all with budgets over $1,000,000 as per the RFP requirement). Also last year, Rockefeller Foundation’s president Rajiv Shah defended many of the foundation’s traditional practices, including restricted grants. Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation, speaking at the Jewish Funder’s Network annual conference in 2023 similarly defended the process of requiring proposals and reports, even from applicants in underserved communities. And, of course, the application process is required by nearly all government funding programs. As long as the grant proposal process exists, there will be a need for improved declination processes.

We Understand Why Foundations Don’t Give Feedback to Declined Applicants

When I was a baby philanthropist (in my mid-20s), I was a member of a giving circle and many of its members would be expected to assume significant responsibilities at their family foundations in the future. To train us for the declination process, the group heard from a prominent leader in philanthropy, a Doctor (PhD) of Giving who had authored books on the philanthropy process and given away hundreds of millions of dollars to various causes while declining just as many requests.

A main point of his presentation was that you should not give any feedback at all because if you did proposal writers would argue with it and waste more time. You should decline in a way that they could not respond to.

For instance, if you told them “We denied this grant because the committee didn’t think the program was sustainable,” they would inevitably reply “But we are sustainable and here is our nine point powerpoint explaining why!” You would be right back where you started.

Many of the professionals who work daily on the declination process offer similar advice with a focus more on not wasting time than on constructive feedback. I found this article by Stephen Green of the Jim Joseph Foundation particularly enlightening on this issue. Exponent Philanthropy, in a similar post, advises that “On a case by case basis, you may decide to give more details,…This is usually kept to a minimum…” 

The National Center for Family Philanthropy offers these templates for declination letters. A warning before you read these, they might be triggering and seem all too familiar for anyone who has had many proposals rejected. 

Our Declination Intervention: Independent, Helpful,  and Candid Proposal Evaluation

Unfunded List began independently reviewing grant proposals and providing helpful and candid feedback to each submission in 2015. Volunteer evaluators review the submissions we receive. Over 1000 volunteers from nearly 100 countries have signed up to review proposals. A diverse learning community offering a multitude of perspectives, some evaluators are program officers at leading foundations, others are fundraising consultants with decades of experience, many are authors of proposals we have reviewed.

Every week new volunteers join our committee and ask to review proposals. Many return round after round and find great value in our training videos, informative articles, and other educational resources all available for free. 

Each feedback report includes evaluations from an average of 6 different reviewers. We assign proposals thoughtfully, taking account of evaluators’ interests and expertise and making sure to include a wide array of perspectives in each report. At the end of each round, we offer a follow-up discussion to review the report. These discussions are my favorite part of the program. Every time we review a proposal, we invite the author to join our evaluation committee and to submit additional proposals in future rounds.

What Is Our Impact?

Recently, we did an internal impact study to look at fundraising totals for organizations that sent proposals to Unfunded List between 2016 and 2018 and were still fundraising in 2022. Each group we looked at had 501c3 status the year before our review and they also had 2022 fundraising totals available. 

  • 27 out of the 31 organizations raised more money in 2022 than they did the year before they applied to Unfunded List
  • In fact, they raised an average of 213% more
  • The average amount raised before applying was $1.5 million. The average amount raised by these same groups in 2022 was $4.6 million

Some of the highest increases came from groups whose proposals we highlighted on our website:

With our growing community of proposal authors and evaluators, Unfunded List  is a great resource for grantmakers looking to create a more inclusive philanthropy by directing more resources to community-led organizations. Over the years we have helped thousands of community leaders become experienced proposal evaluators while helping proposal authors from communities around the globe raise more funding for their programs. We look forward to continuing with our mission.


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