Winning Foundation GrantsThis article is adapted from Martin Teitel’s book, The Ultimate Insider’s Guide to Winning Foundation Grants.

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In Part Four of his book, Teitel answers a host of questions about the practices of private foundations. Excerpted here are answers to just three of the many questions.

1) Countless organizations submit proposals and months later receive polite, vague letters of rejection. It's almost as if foundations won't tell you the real reason your proposal was rejected.

This is true. Saying “no” euphemistically is part of most rejection – screeners for film festivals, banks considering loans, nervous teenagers trying for a prom date.

As a funder, I had two reasons for fuzzy prose. The lesser reason is that it’s cheaper and faster to send out a form letter. The more compelling one, for me, is that when I tried explaining the “real” reason I frequently found it was a waste of time and an exercise in frustration. People get defensive and argumentative – and the conversation drags on.

Here’s a compromise tactic my staff used. We first sent out the much-mocked form letters – which, by the way, many foundations continually tweak to convey a tone of respect, regret, and finality. Then, if someone we rejected called, I asked my staff to follow this three-part formula:

A) Empathy

B) Information

C) Termination

Empathy in this case refers to a brief, non-patronizing statement about feelings. Not “I know how you feel,” but more along the lines of “I’m sorry this didn’t work out; it must be disappointing.” We start by acknowledging the passions involved.

Next, the foundation staffer provides a reason for the rejection. This is the hardest part to do well, since the reason sometimes is we thought the strategy was dumb, or we didn’t think your organization had the competence, or some other harsh judgment. So like parents at a fourth-grade production of Macbeth, we struggle to find something to say that rings true but doesn’t devastate.

Finally, termination is the key. Having tried to show some feelings and to provide a reason for the rejection, we thank the person for calling and hang up the phone. Knowing the caller may have paid good money at a grant-writing workshop for the (counterproductive) advice to keep the funder on the phone at all costs, this task can be a struggle. But failure to keep it short is how the conversation can quickly degenerate into recrimination and worse – to everyone’s detriment.

2) Rather than helping nonprofits cover their operating costs, grant makers overwhelmingly prefer to make grants that support specific projects or direct delivery of services.

I regret to inform you – this is true. There are two closely related reasons why. First, foundations are – appropriately – under a lot of pressure from the IRS and state officials to be accountable and from their boards of directors to show results. Often, these requirements mean foundations want results that are quantifiable, measurable. Those ideas are frequently reduced to units of population served or some other project-oriented metric.

The second reason is that some foundation boards put their staff under considerable pressure to fund work that board members see as directly helping the community, however these board members might understand the words help and community. The building of organizational competence and supporting nonprofit infrastructure are some of the goals that can be lost as a result.

Although some grant maker–grant seeker problems are created by both sides of the transaction, the insistence on supporting only projects, rather than “general support,” is one I lay at the feet of funders. I don’t like to sound too pessimistic, but in this case I can’t think of what would motivate grant makers to relent on this habit.

A cynical person – alas, I’m one of them – might claim that funders insist on project support because it keeps grantees on the shortest leash. General support means the money is given for any legal purpose the grantee decides. Letting the grantee choose how to spend the grant moves some of the power from the grant maker to the grant receiver.

3) Ask any grant maker, and he or she will tell you that grant-writing workshops promulgate a number of cockeyed notions.

True. The number one silliness perpetuated by some grant-writing teachers is “Go to the top.” Time and again when I ran foundations, grant seekers would poke and prod to get me on the phone. In many cases, I was just about the last person they should have been trying to reach, especially when there was a genuine expert in their field down the hall. Aside from wasting their time and mine, this insistence on starting at the top – often accomplished by a little more pushiness than my sense of decorum allowed – ended up leaving a bad impression. By going up the down staircase, you slow everyone down and risk damaging your reputation with those you’d most like to influence.

Here’s a second wrongheaded notion: some people are still teaching aspiring proposal writers to frame everything in terms of “goals and objectives.” The truth is, in many cases this rigid framework diminishes effective communication. Tell the story of what you’re going to do, why, and what resources you’ll mobilize. I’ve seen the most wonderful, impressive work squeezed and squelched into rigid pseudo-militaristic lingo. To best gauge the right tone for your proposal, look at the funder’s Web site. See how they express themselves. Few foundations I know of talk in terms of their goals and objectives.

Here’s a third canard, a variant of the advice to go to the top. In this version, a grant seeker is advised to get in touch with the funder and explain why his or her work is important even when the published guidelines don’t include that particular area and, sometimes, specifically exclude it. I never saw the wisdom of this, since it trumpets to the funder your reluctance to read the rules or follow them. Foundation staff members don’t have the power to change most of the rules, hidden boards of directors do. If you want to become a foundation reform activist, this could be a good thing. Just don’t do it as part of your grant-seeking effort.

About the Author

Martin Teitel has worked in the world of nonprofits for 45 years, 30 of them for grant making foundations, including a 12-year stint at CEO of the Cedar Tree Foundation in Boston. Teitel has a PhD in philosophy from the Union Institute, Cincinnati, and a Masters in Social Work from San Diego State University. He is a Field Education Supervisor for the Harvard Divinity School.