What To Tell A Funder If You Miss Outcome Targets


Jessica Knapp


CEO, Communities In Schools Pennsylvania

Reviewed by:


March 18, 2024

Last Updated:

March 19, 2024

When I’m deep in a grant project, I often have nightmares—I dream that I’ve missed a submission deadline, forgot to turn in a report, or my project is failing to meet its intended goals.

Waking up in a sweat isn’t uncommon. It’s unnerving!

But this is what I always remind myself and want to remind you as well: even if your worst nightmare comes true, it’s how you respond to the mistake that really matters. That’s what I want to talk about in this article with you.

In this article, I’m going to share my advice for one of these terror-inducing frights—missing a grant outcome target.

You and I will walk through why this happens, how to avoid it, and what steps to take if you find yourself in this situation. We’re even going to share some expert advice from grant professionals who have found themselves in these exact situations and what they did in response.

Buckle up! And it’s time to get vulnerable!

- Jessica :)

Why You Might Miss an Outcome

There are countless reasons why you might miss a grant outcome or target. Trust me—it happens to all of us at one point or another.

Despite our best efforts, there are challenges and obstacles that exist in the world of grant management that can lead to missed outcomes.

Personally, I have found myself in this situation several times over the course of my career as a grant professional. And while it isn’t ideal, it is the reality of this work; sometimes, things will not go according to plan. What I have found is that if you do some root cause analysis on the reasons why you might miss a grant target, you can prepare yourself—and your team—for more success in the future.

Let’s go over a few of the most common reasons why you might miss a target or outcome:

  • Lack of Capacity: Sometimes, nonprofits may lack the necessary human, financial, or technical resources to effectively execute the project as it was outlined in the grant.
  • Overly-Ambitious Objectives: If the project or program’s grant objectives are not reasonable or achievable with the designated resources or within the specified time frame, it can lead to difficulties in meeting the outcomes required.
  • Lack of Planning: Insufficient planning or rushed implementation can result in missed outcomes. Proper project management, including timelines and milestones, is key for success.
  • Ineffective Communication: Poor communication within the organization or with external stakeholders can hinder collaboration, coordination, and ultimately, the achievement of grant outcomes.
  • Staff Turnover or Burnout: High staff turnover or burnout can disrupt project continuity and lead to delays or gaps in implementation, impacting the achievement of grant outcomes.
  • Lack of Monitoring and Evaluation: Without a strong grant evaluation plan in place, it can be challenging to track progress, identify issues early, and make necessary adjustments to ensure desired outcomes are met.
  • External Challenges: The world is unpredictable! External factors like the COVID-19 pandemic, economic recessions, or even housing market crashes can cause missed grant outcomes and require organizations to change and adapt their plans.

Here’s the thing: preparedness is key. If any of the above things happen and cause you to miss a grant goal or target, you need to be prepared to take action appropriately and respond tactfully to the funder.

Don’t worry—we’re going to walk you through the exact steps to take to do this in the next section.

The Steps to Take If You Miss a Target With a Funder

When you miss a grant outcome, it’s essential to stay calm and immediately begin strategizing your next move so that you can stay in good standing with the funder. While a funder is unlikely to ask for their money back, you could potentially ruin your chances of securing additional funding from them in the future depending on how you respond to the situation.

Here’s another thing to keep in mind—when you share the real challenges of your work with funders, it helps them better understand the complexities of nonprofit work. They want to see you be successful, and understanding the barriers that you face in affecting real change will help them better support you (and other organizations) in the future.

Here are 4 steps that we recommend you take as soon as you realize you’ve missed a grant target.

Step 1: Reach Out!

The very first thing you want to do when you realize you have missed a grant target or outcome is reach out to the funder and inform them of the situation.

When you communicate with the funder about the missed outcome, it’s really important to be prompt and proactive. Timely communication will demonstrate a high level of professionalism and trustworthiness that is essential to a successful partnership.

CEO and grant professional Sarah Lange agrees:

“If you run into problems, contact them IMMEDIATELY. Making a phone call is best. When you reach the correct person, describe the situation and outline the challenges you’re facing…A funder would rather have you contact them at the first sign of a problem than when it’s turned into a dumpster fire.”

In addition to informing the funder about the missed outcome, you need to reiterate your organization’s commitment to addressing the situation constructively and collaboratively. Do this by expressing your willingness to work closely with the funder to find solutions and realign project objectives to ensure future success.

Sarah Lange is also no stranger to this kind of situation. Check out her story about a recent missed outcome because of an issue outside of her control:

“We secured a bunch of funding for a project we planned to implement in 2023, but then the local real estate market went bonkers and we were unable to find a new program space that was affordable, so we put the project on hold. Once the board made this decision, we sent out a letter to all of the project funders, letting them know the situation, and made ourselves available to answer questions or concerns. We assured them that the money had been temporarily restricted, and was in a separate (savings) account. Not one funder took their money back! We will continue to provide quarterly updates until we are ready to move ahead with the project.”

Step 2: Identify Causes and Solutions

After you notify the funder of the missed outcome, it’s time to start conducting some root cause analysis.

Here’s some expert advice from Jeannette Archer-Simons, President/Development Director of Archer-Simons Consulting Group, going into this step:

“Be honest and straightforward with the funder. What was the challenge? What did you learn as a result? Was there a change in staffing and how will you address it?”

During this step, we encourage you to conduct a thorough analysis to pinpoint the root causes of the missed outcome. This may involve activities like:

  • Reviewing project documentation
  • Analyzing program data
  • Engaging with key stakeholders to gain insights from the field

After you’ve successfully identified the cause of the setback, put your collaboration cap on and work with the funder to explore potential solutions or adjustments that can be made to overcome the identified challenges. Solutions will vary depending on the project and the specific causes of the missed target, but might include things such as:

  • Reallocating resources
  • Revising project timelines
  • Redesigning project strategies

Here’s some advice based on my own personal experiences missing grant goals: Make sure you approach the analysis work with an open mind and a willingness to consider different perspectives. It can be difficult to hear that a grant project is struggling, but constructive feedback is the best way to figure out the root cause of the problem.

Step 3: Make a Plan

By now, you should know the obstacles or challenges that factored into missing your grant outcome. And you’ve also begun to brainstorm some solutions. That’s great! Now it’s time to put one of those solutions into action.

Using all the information you learned through analysis and feedback, develop a revised plan of action for your grant program that addresses the identified challenges and meets the funder’s expectations.

Make sure you communicate your revised plan clearly and comprehensively to the funder. HIghlight how the new plan builds upon the lessons learned from the missed outcome and sets your project on a new path to success.

This plan should outline the specific steps, objectives, and timelines for achieving the desired outcome.

Pro Tip: Make sure that this plan is realistic and achievable. The very last thing you want to do at this juncture is set yourself up for another missed goal or outcome. Consider your factors such as budget constraints and staff capacity when you are developing this new plan.

Step 4: Keep Communicating!

Informing the funder of your missed outcome is great—but it’s important to keep communicating with them throughout the remainder of the grant period so that they can keep track of your progress.

Many funders will have built-in reporting requirements, which are a great way to show your impact. But if they don’t, it’s up to you to establish a robust reporting framework to track the progress of your updated action plan. This might involve setting clear reporting milestones, defining key performance indicators, and implementing a reporting schedule with regular check-ins.

Within these reports, be sure to include any deviations from the plan, challenges you’ve encountered, or successes that you’ve achieved.

Remember—transparency fosters trust and will strengthen your relationship with the funder over time. Always keep those lines of communication open and encourage feedback from the funder to ensure you’re both on the same page.

Personal Pro Tip: In the past, when I have missed a grant outcome, I’ve offered to put recurring meeting invites on the funder’s calendar to ensure they’re getting a bi-weekly or monthly project update. I’ve also offered to take a funder out to coffee to share a testimonial from a program beneficiary and hand them a visually appealing project data card.

What’s important is that you make sure to highlight the value of the funder’s investment in driving positive change and making a difference in the lives of those served by the project.

Mary Gladstone-Highland, a nonprofit consultant at Spark Group Consulting, shared with us these words of wisdom:

“Communication is key. Any opportunity to collaborate with a funder is a way to build a deeper connection. It changes your mindset if you view setbacks as a chance to demonstrate your problem-solving capabilities and improve your relationship with a funder.”

Once you’ve completed these four steps, it’s likely you’ll be well on your way to building trust with your funder and achieving your desired outcomes. But the work doesn’t stop here!

It’s super important to demonstrate ongoing accountability by successfully executing your revised plan of action diligently and effectively. Make sure that the project activities are carried out according to the agreed-upon timelines and objectives.

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Keep Relationships By Keeping Them Transparent

As a grant professional, facing the possibility of missed outcomes can be a chilling experience. Having lived through such scenarios numerous times in my career, I’ve learned that while unsettling, these situations provide invaluable opportunities for growth and development.

Matt Hugg, the founder of Nonprofit.Courses shares that keeping funders in the loop early is critical. For example, if your spending is higher than expected, you don’t want to come out of the blue asking for more money. On this point, Matt said,

Not keeping up a line of communication with the funder about how the money is spent, and whether it is consistent with what you predicted in your proposal is a big mistake [I see nonprofits make]. Funders will be understanding of changes, IF you keep them informed about why they need to occur.

Root cause analysis has been my go-to strategy, helping me identify obstacles and collaborate with funders to explore solutions. Proactive communication is also essential in these situations, as it fosters trust and enables us to develop strong partnerships.

By embracing lessons learned and maintaining a commitment to improvement, we can navigate these situations with funders while still building trust, credibility, and impact.

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Jessica Knapp

Jessica Knapp is the State President and Chief Executive Officer of Communities In Schools Pennsylvania, the United States' largest dropout prevention organization. She has over 10 years of experience in nonprofit operations and leadership, program development, and fundraising/resource development.

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