Saying Yes/Saying No to Applicants: Strengthening Your Decision Giving Skills

Most funders review more proposals than they can recommend for funding. Decision making about what to fund is challenging and so is decision giving to hopeful applicants. How do you say Yes, or No, so that grant applicants understand your foundation's rationale, feel that they've been treated fairly, and can make realistic plans about their next steps? This guide offers observations and suggestions from funders and grantees to make this task easier and more meaningful.


  • Reviewing the basic rules
  • Understanding grantseeker expectations
  • Managing your role and the rationale for your decision

What's in the Guide?

  • Introduction: For most grantmakers, decision making is always difficult, but decision giving can be just as hard: How do you say Yes or No so that grant applicants clearly understand your rationale, feel that they've been treated fairly, and make realistic plans about their next steps?
  • The Basic Rules: The basic rules of good decision giving might look like a matter of simple efficiency and etiquette. But decision giving can get complicated in ways that can suddenly make it hard to observe them.
  • The Rationale for Your Decision and Its Implications: In giving Nos, rationale is destiny. If you understand the rationale for your decision clearly, you can understand how much and what kind of effort to make in communicating with grantseekers.
  • Grantseeker Expectations: Grantmakers describe six situations — from making site visits to reviewing proposals from friends and former colleagues — where understanding the grantseeker's expectations can lead to better decision giving.
  • How Your Institution Shapes Decision Giving: Grantmakers can't unilaterally change their institutions, but they can understand how institutional practices and culture influence their decision giving challenges. The first step is to identify the expectations and unwritten rules of your foundation.
  • Your Personal Identity vs. Professional Role: While retreating totally into a professional role would make grantmakers inaccessible and impersonal, ignoring that role can make decision giving too personal — creating burdens and dynamics that needlessly complicate the job.
  • The Challenges of Saying Yes: A Yes is often just an early step in a long, possibly complicated relationship between a grantmaker and grantee. Getting that relationship off to a good start, with realistic expectations on both sides, means saying a good deal more than just Yes.

This guide is designed to help grantmakers understand and manage the dynamics of decision giving with applicants. Because it explores ways you might navigate difficult situations more effectively, you may find it useful to review this guide at different times, including:

  • When you're stuck in a particularly difficult decision giving muddle — you find yourself procrastinating, worrying, and doubting yourself — and want to unpack and deal with the situation.
  • If you find you have a chronic reluctance about decision giving, and would like to develop a better understanding and approach to it.
  • When your foundation is reviewing its processes and approaches, and you would like to identify ways it could support a more effective decision giving process.

This guide is meant not only for grantmakers, but for anyone in a grantmaking organization whose responsibilities include communicating with the people who apply for funding:

  • Grantmakers may find it helpful to share this information with their legal, administrative, and executive colleagues, to make sure that all communication with applicants is consistent, clear, respectful, and useful.
  • Support staff are sometimes the first contact — maybe the only contact — with people who approach your organization with questions about funding. This guide may be as useful for them as for grantmakers. In some organizations, legal staff or grant managers, rather than grantmakers, are the ones who acknowledge proposals, prepare grant letters, and field some questions from grantseekers. They, too, will find this guide helpful in thinking about their responsibilities.
  • Some or all of the information in this guide can be used as part of a training curriculum for grantmakers and other employees. It offers a simple compendium of basic issues in dealing with grantseekers, and it may provide background for a discussion about how to establish the right relationship between funders and those who seek support.