How to Learn from Losing

Recently, I served as a Proposal Manager on a losing effort.  I felt badly partly because I liked my client very much and partly because I thought we had submitted an excellent proposal.

We participated in two debriefings, one by telephone and the other through a meeting.  While the debriefing did not make me feel much better, it will help me to develop a better proposal in the future with this client.

Most grant proposals are turned down.  While losing is inevitable, too many nonprofit organizations do not use the losing process to improve their performance.

If your proposal was submitted to a foundation or corporation, you are very unlikely to receive any feedback except a polite form letter stating that you were turned down.  However, if you submitted a grant proposal to a government agency, you should take these steps to learn from your experience:

  • Request copies of the reviewers’ evaluations or a summary of the evaluations.
  • Create a process for the proposal team to review and analyze the entire proposal effort.

Let’s look at each of these steps as part of a learning process.  Unfortunately, too many nonprofit organizations do take this approach.

I recommend that you convene a face-to-face meeting with members of your proposal team to discuss the evaluations.  Compare them closely with the actual proposal and discuss what you might have done differently – and better.  You may not agree with all the remarks – evaluators, after all, are as idiosyncratic as you are – but you should find many valuable pieces of advice.

Do not focus on people, focus on what the team can do next time to improve the process of proposal development.  There are many kinds of realistic organizational constraints that you face – time, resources, staff, the propensity not to admit mistakes, to name just a few – so focus on what is most important and achievable.

It is painful to analyze your proposal team’s prior performance.  It is especially difficult to admit that mistakes were made.  Nonetheless, if you can find ways to learn from losing, you will become better at submitting more competitive proposals.

Holding a debriefing following a loss is an excellent first step to take in the resubmission process.

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