How to Accept Rejection (and Other Writing Lessons Learned as a Fundraiser)
From 2005 to 2018, I worked full-time as a grant writer for arts organizations. If you’ve never worked in nonprofit development, it’s like wearing 80 hats, juggling knives, and keeping two dozen plates spinning in the air, all while making next to nothing with a giant smile on your face.
I honestly thought I’d be in development forever (because, let’s face it, no one in fundraising can really afford to retire). But then my family moved cross-country, and I found myself (due to too many circumstances to describe here) unable to continue working in nonprofits at the same capacity.
So, I chose to write — not grants, but blogs, fiction, essays, and articles. My goals changed from raising millions for organizations to earning bylines for myself.
My new career has had its ups and downs, but I’m so grateful I had those years in development to serve as a foundation (no pun intended) for this next chapter. Until I left the field, I didn’t realize just how much those 13 years taught me and how much of what I’d learned I could use as a freelance writer.
There’s More to Writing Than Just Writing
Though I was a grant writer, writing took up only a portion of my time. There was also prospect research, cultivation, donor stewardship, reporting, financial tracking, and of course, meetings, meetings, and then meetings in the middle of meetings. With some meetings on the side.
I lunched with donors, drank with prospects, and left gifts on the seats of my longtime subscribers, so when they came to the theater they’d be moved by my — and my department’s — kindness. I attended events (so many events), schmoozed at galas, and got far too many high heel-induced blisters to count.
But it was all part of the work. Data gathering, research, proofreading, editing, follow-up calls, relationship building…no proposal would have been successful without these components.
And if a grant came in, there were (often arduous) reporting requirements, with each report requiring its own research, writing, proofreading, and submission process. Point is, my role as a grant writer encompassed so much more than just writing.
I’ve found it’s the same with freelance writing. I’m constantly researching potential outlets for my work. Every piece I write has to be proofread, then submitted with a concise yet thorough cover letter. Follow-up emails are often necessary, and I try to establish relationships with editors whenever possible.
I no longer wear heels or attend nightly functions, but I still schmooze at conferences and have drinks at networking events. I don’t leave seat gifts at the theater, but I retweet articles by my favorite writers and editors — the social media version of prospect cultivation. And I still track financials (does that one publication owe me money…?) and deadlines, just as I did when I was an employee.
The writing is a part of my job, but it certainly isn’t all I do.
Guidelines Exist for a Reason
One of the first rules of grant writing is Never Talk About Grant Writing. (Mostly because it’s boring.) The second rule of grant writing is Always Follow the Guidelines.
If you’re submitting a proposal to a foundation, corporation, or government agency and they have guidelines available — use them. Follow them to a T. If you skip a step, submit your document through the mail instead of email, or address your cover letter to the wrong person, you could lose your chance at funding before the recipient even reads your document. Why would they trust your organization to facilitate a program with their money if you can’t even follow the basic steps for completing the ask?
It’s the same with freelance writing. Most publications have submission guidelines — use them. Follow them to a T. Some editors request PDF or Word attachments, while others won’t even open an email with an attachment. Some want a pitch rather than a full article, while others are open to receiving a completed piece.
Anytime a publication tells you specifically what, when, and how they want your submission, do as they tell you. Editors are far less likely to take you seriously if you don’t.
Finally, the biggest lesson learned:
Rejection Isn’t Personal
When you’re submitting proposals regularly, you quickly learn not to get too hung up on rejections. Yes, sometimes a “no” can sting. (I once spent an entire month working on a proposal to the National Endowment for the Humanities. The narrative alone — not including all the attachments — was 17 pages of text. We requested $350,000, and I was convinced we’d get at least half. We got nothing. I was devastated.)
But eventually, you accept that the “no” isn’t about you, or even your work. In 2016, I submitted 29 proposals, but 13 were declined. I raised just under $650,000, but had all 29 proposals received full funding, I would have raised over $1 million. The year prior, my 17 approved grants brought in $713,000 —but, due to the declines from the National Endowment for the Humanities and two other major asks, that amount could have been as high as $2.1 million. Ouch.
Those losses were hard, but I learned not to take them personally. The 33 funded proposals brought in $1.3 million for those two years, and not once did I hear that a “no” had anything to do with my writing. In many cases, there were too many asks from various organizations and not enough funding to go around. In others, the program we wanted support for just wasn’t a right fit for the funder. (For example, the National Endowment for the Humanities declined because the project itself didn’t align well enough with the NEH’s guidelines for them to justify funding it.)
It’s the same in freelancing: A “no” doesn’t mean your pitch or essay or story isn’t right. It means it isn’t right for that publication. You might get a rejection because the outlet ran a similar story weeks ago or has one in the pipeline for next month. Or maybe your article’s tone isn’t quite what they’re going for — you’re too humorous, they want solemn. Or perhaps you have a character wearing a blue shirt and the editor just that morning broke up with her boyfriend who had blue eyes and she can’t fathom how anyone would like the color blue because he was a stupid jerk.
See? Not about you.
When the “no” rolls in (and it will), take a moment to be sad. Eat some ice cream, wallow for a few moments, cry if you must, but then move on. Submit that piece to the next place on your list and keep right on writing.