This article is based on Martin Teitel's book, The Ultimate Insider’s Guide to Winning Foundation Grants.
In my long career as a funder, I loved the satisfaction of helping people who were doing wonderful things for other people. During those many years, I actually saw few proposals that advocated for bad ideas. But I did encounter an astonishing number of funding requests that were cast in the worst possible light.
In this limited space I can only touch upon the recommendations offered in my book, The Ultimate Insider’s Guide to Winning Foundation Grants. With an apology for oversimplifying the process, let me offer a distilled formula that should at least nudge you in the right direction for landing your next big grant.
- Target the Right Foundation
Even in this sophisticated age, there are people that still plug a list of funders into their database and churn out generic proposals.
Maybe once in a while this scattershot technique works. I suppose if you went to a mall looking for a ham sandwich, started at one end and went to every single store with your request, you might eventually stumble into a place that could fix you up – after having wasted the time of the puzzled clerks in the Apple Store and Talbots.
No one that I’m aware of keeps statistics about the internal workings of foundations, but anecdotally it seems certain that more and more foundations are shunning unsolicited, that is, junk proposals.
Need I say, don’t go there?
- Mind the LOI
For most foundations, the standard technique they require of grant seekers is the LOI – Letter of Inquiry. By doing so, foundations avoid an avalanche of paper and grantees are spared writing and sending thick stacks of verbiage, charts, and testimonials.
A letter of inquiry distills the organization’s request down to something quite brief. It gives the foundation an opportunity to express interest, and if the putative grantee has his ears open, a chance for him to learn what tweaking of the idea might actually result in a grant.
A typical LOI will have a title, a one- or two-sentence summary of the entire project, an explanation of the issue and how it’ll be addressed, and a description of the organization doing the work. A budget is always attached.
- Pique the Program Officer
Every proposal eventually finds its way to the desk of a program officer. There she sits, a mug of coffee in hand to combat the dreaded occupational disease: MEGO. The term refers to a condition caused by reading scores if not hundreds of proposals in a brief span of time: My Eyes Glaze Over.
As a proposal writer, know that your first and main job is to avoid inducing an acute case of MEGO. Your goal is to motivate that program officer to assign a code to your proposal that keeps it alive in the evaluation and screening process. At this stage, you should have no other goal.
I drill down to specifics in my book, but here I’ll simply offer four short tips:
- Present solutions, not problems. Although many organizations are indeed trying to address serious problems, I’ve seen far too many proposals that are almost all problem statement, with scant information about exactly what the applicant is going to do to remedy the concern.
- Write and rewrite. Avoid jargon and technical terms; use metaphor sparingly; equate statistics with cayenne pepper – a little goes a long way; and keep the words flowing with short sentences that draw the reader in.
- Focus on what you’re already achieving and how you plan to continue. Instead of telling me that if our foundation doesn’t give you money something awful will happen or that if we don’t fund you, you might cease to exist, better proposals say, “We’re doing something wonderful here, and we’re going to do it with or without you. With you, it’ll happen faster and better. Please join us in this excellent work.”
- Don’t bypass the system. In the course of your foundation research, you might discover that you’re familiar with someone on the board, or someone who goes to church with that person, or has a kid on their soccer team. So you figure, I’ll use this to my advantage and go straight to that individual.
There are two reasons to resist: the first is that foundation boards pay their staff fancy money to buffer them from being hassled and, despite your charm, you run the risk of annoying the very person you hope will end up liking your work. The second reason not to do an end run is the risk it creates with foundation staff. I don’t actually know anyone who enjoys having someone go over their head. It doesn’t make the staff feel warm inside to know that he or she has been left out of the equation.
- Meet the Proposed Funder
Although it’s possible to receive a grant without ever meeting the funder, and many grantees would be happy to avoid the stress and possibly tricky questions arising from an in-person conversation, there are good reasons for having such a meeting.
First of all, some funders can’t really get comfortable with a prospective grantee or a new idea until they’ve interacted beyond the piles of paper. Second, there are some ideas and facets of nonprofit work that have to be seen to be appreciated. And, finally, some grant makers are required to meet people they fund, so you really won’t have a choice.
Tolerate a few obvious tips here: don’t give the funder short notice that you want a meeting; don’t show up without an appointment; don’t arrive late; and don’t venture to the offices of a foundation in tattered jeans and a tee shirt. In general, what it comes down to is: make a shining impression of your organization and you’ll be just fine.
- Steward the Relationship
After you’re told the fabulous news about your grant award, I recommend you do three things:
- Sit down with a tasteful piece of stationery or cheery card and send a thank you note to the funder. You don’t need to gush, but a hearty thanks is one of the ways to cement your new relationship.
- Put the funder on your mailing list – judiciously. If you have a monthly or quarterly newsletter, put the funder on the list for a free lifetime subscription. If your organization holds events, and the funder is local, make sure she’s invited.
- Take an empty file folder, label it “Foundation Reports,” and place it on your desk. As successes or interesting events in your organization are documented, remember to slip a copy into the folder. When it comes time to report on a grant, reach into this file, go back twelve months in what you pull out, and walk to the photocopier.
6. Report Results
Grant reporting – no one likes it. But let me suggest three reasons for paying close attention to the necessary evil.
First, most groups hope to receive repeat funding. Those that are late or fail to comply with reporting requirements will be on shaky ground for a renewal grant.
Second, you might actually teach the funder something. In most foundations, the board is interested in how their grants turn out and they might even enjoy reports or at least summaries.
Finally, sitting down and summarizing what you did over the past year is an excellent way to improve your work. It forces you to step back from the daily struggle and think about what you accomplished, what your greatest challenges were, and what you’ve learned.
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.