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Feedback matters - providing meaningful feedback to unsuccessful applicants

The 2015 Australian Institute of Grants Management's (AIGM) Grants In Australia Survey revealed nearly half (46%) of survey respondents felt that grantmakers do a "bad" job of providing meaningful feedback to unsuccessful applicants.

This finding is not new. In fact, applicants and grantees have been reporting this as a concern since 2006. At the same time, grantmakers have expressed specific concerns about providing feedback to unsuccessful applicants and may be reluctant to open themselves up to complaints.

There are many reasons a grantor may choose not to fund an application. The applicant may not be eligible. The activities may not align with the targeted program outcomes. Or the project may seem too high risk. More often than not however, when an application is declined it's because available funding is limited and other applications scored better.

That being said, a friendly statement like, "We received a high volume of applications and were not able to fund as many projects as we would like," doesn't let the applicant know if they just missed the cut or were way off of the mark.

Providing meaningful feedback to unsuccessful applicants is beneficial to everyone because it:

  • Saves time in the future - If an applicant believes they were close to getting funded, then it's likely that they will submit a similar application in upcoming grant rounds. If in actuality their application was far from competitive, gently letting them know that will save you from repeatedly processing and assessing applications with the same issues in future grant rounds.
  • Increases capacity - Providing meaningful feedback helps applicant's learn. This increases their capacity to attract funding, not only from you, but also from other grantors. When you provide information that helps applicants improve, you increase your community's capacity.
  • Helps you carry out your mission - In an ideal world, every grant round would elicit an array of high quality applications. Giving applicants useful feedback will help make that a reality. Your ability to carry out your mission is enhanced by increasing the capacity of your non-profit partners.

Use the Numbers…

So if we know that giving meaningful feedback is in our best interest, how should we go about doing it? One of the easiest ways to give feedback is to let declined applicants know how they scored on specific assessment criteria compared to how the applications that got funded scored.

While this does not give the applicant specific feedback, it does let them know which areas they need to work on. If you're using a numeric rating scale, then you can easily use those scores to let failed applicants know what areas they need to work on. You can even extract that information as a report in SmartyGrants and include it in your decline letter.

Assessment Criteria Your Score Average Score of Funded Applications
Project aligns with the stated program objectives 4.2 4.6
There is a demonstrated need for the project
and anticipated community or industry benefit
4.6 4.7
The applicant has the capacity to successfully
carry out the project as described in the application
3.9 4.2
Extent to which the budget is comprehensive,
realistic and provides value for money
2.6 4.5
Extent to which alternative and complementary,
funding sources have been explored and secured
2.8 3.9

In the above example, the failed applicant would easily be able to see that they had designed a project that was of interest to the funder, but that they needed to do a better job demonstrating their capacity and planning their budget.

Providing even this level of feedback will steer applicants in the right direction and hopefully result in better applications the next round.

But you will benefit even more if you can direct your applicants towards resources that will help them understand what funders are looking for, how to identify the right grant opportunities for their project and how the different pieces of a grant proposal should fit together.

Keep a list of resources handy for sharing with applicants who are motivated to learn.

... But Don't Hide Behind Them

If you're hesitant to put more specific feedback in writing, then be ready to provide that information by phone if you're contacted by an unsuccessful applicant.

In the example above, the applicant may have put a lot of time into creating their budget and may not understand why it scored so low. Lacking specific feedback, they may repeat the same mistakes in future applications.

However, if a staff member can take time to explain, "In the description of your project you talked about the need for XYZ, but your budget didn't include any funds to pay XYZers," then it's much more likely that the applicant will present a better budget in future grant rounds.

Tips for Giving Feedback to Unsuccessful Applicants

  • Make sure your assessment form collects specific feedback from assessors that your program officers can later share with declined applicants.
  • You will be at less risk for complaints if you ensure that your assessment criteria are clearly stated in your program guidelines. Applicants should not be penalised for failing to do something that was not listed as a requirement or assessment criterion in the first place.
  • Consider giving feedback to be an integral step of completing a grant round. Allocate appropriate staff time. Time invested in giving meaningful feedback will pay off in the long run as it will lead to improved applications in the future.
  • Look for patterns. If many applicants are scoring low on the budget, then it's possible they do not understand your budget form. Likewise, they may have trouble seeing how they are supposed to align proposed activities with your program's desired outcomes. If a lot of applicants are having trouble in a specific area, you may want to consider changing your form or holding a pre-application training session in future grant rounds to explain what you are looking for.

Kate Caldecott is the former Executive Director of the AIGM and a founding member of the SmartyGrants leadership team. She now works as a consultant, focussing on reforming and streamlining grants programs, program evaluation and making the most of SmartyGrants. Kate can be contacted on: or on 0447 227 598.
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