The denial

by Colby Martin

Before joining the NCCF, I was a grant writer, just like a lot of you. At least that’s what my name tag said. Looking back on the first couple of years, I felt I had a knack for it. They even moved me into an office with a door! (Quite an improvement from where I had previously been learning this thing called grants on a desk with three sturdy legs and the fourth one duct-taped on.)

I felt a predictable pattern: if I worked really hard on a grant, I got it. If I only gave it a half-effort, I wasn’t surprised if I got a notice that we wouldn’t be awarded funding. (Sometimes didn’t get a notice at all).

One day, the inverse was true. It was a state grant. On top of what I thought was a quality, evidence-based program that I could write nearly perfectly, the evaluative measures were clearly defined in the RFP. They even gave the applicants a point structure the evaluators would use to judge our applications. Plus the deadline was in the summer with all the school folks off. A Friday, no-less!

I worked with my teammates, I put in the hours, I wrote a grant for the ages that had all those SMART objectives. I even infused benchmarks in my evaluation plan with mid-year goals and what we would do to adjust. When I pretended to be the evaluator, I scored a perfect 100.

Then the State Board of Education voted on the recommendations. There I was in my office – the one with a door and a really nice desk that the superintendent himself bought from a United Way auction – when I looked online at the public meeting minutes. I printed out the results for my file of winners.

But, to my surprise, there was Yancey County Schools (my employer), not at the top, but in the denial table.

Shocked, and in what was not my best moment, I crumpled up the paper and threw it into the corner of the room. Disbelief. I kicked up my leg and shook my head. I wanted to look at my competitions’ applications. What did they do right that I did wrong? I re-read the RFP. Could I have missed that we were ineligible for some reason? Nope. I went to the superintendent and griped. I said it was unfair.

But what he told me in response has stuck with me for a long time.

He said I could pursue it if I wanted to. I could look into some kind of appeal, but it was probably a waste of time. He’d rather me take the day off, brush myself off and go after the next one fresh.

So I did. It was my first real rejection but in some ways I was thankful for it because it taught me that lesson.

Since then, I received many grants I felt I didn’t deserve and was notified about grants that I thought I’d land easy, but never did. And from that summer on, whenever I hit “send” or dropped the application in the mail (10 copies, each stapled in the top left hand corner with one-inch margins), I made peace with the fact that a grant is just an opportunity for someone who is gracious and has the means to invest in the problem you are addressing and the proposal you are communicating in writing. In other words, once it was out of my hands, it was out of my hands.

Denials can be hard, especially when you have tasted victory. By relinquishing control, I realized that the funding went wherever it needed to go. So whether my proposal won favor or not, I learned there is one thing we can do with the denials in our life: continue to do the good work. The grant doesn’t define or qualify our usefulness. Sometimes the benefits of merely writing it are much longer in its reach.