Seven Proposal Writing Tips from a Foundation CEO
By Martin Teitel
In my thirty-five years as a foundation CEO, I was frequently asked for advice on getting funded. There isn’t enough space here to discuss the ins and outs of creating successful proposals, but I can share with you a few of the dozens of tips you’ll find in my book, The Ultimate Insider’s Guide to Winning Foundation Grants.
1. Talk mainly about solutions, not problems.
Grant seekers sometimes confuse writing proposals with authoring pamphlets meant to educate and mobilize the public. Of course your proposal should show you’re familiar with the issue, but most of a good proposal will focus specifically on what you’re going to do about the problem. Too often proposal writers pour their hearts into the details of the issue and then resort to vague generalities about their actual activities and what will be done to address it.
2. Don’t parrot the funder’s guidelines without linking them to your work.
It’s difficult to understand why so many grant seekers think that pasting phrases from the funder’s guidelines into their proposals will unlock the money box. If the funder says they seek to support people working to improve the health of city children, don’t tell the funder that your organization exists “to improve the health of city children.” All successful proposals need to fit within the foundation’s guidelines, but detailing how and why they fit is the key to success, not simply showing that you’ve read them.
3. Fuss over the summary until it sparkles.
What if you knew that huge sums of money, perhaps a month or two of your organization’s payroll, were riding on two hundred or four hundred words? Wouldn’t you pay scrupulous attention to these passages? Your proposal will only get read if the summary provides a reason for the program officer to dig deeper.
4. Expect to be asked “What will you do if we only support part of your request?”
Foundations are wary of all or nothing funding strategies, especially when they’re pressed by more requests than they can fund. Be ready with a credible fallback position that shows how your work will go forward with partial funding. Funders want assurance that their investment in your project will be worthwhile even if you have to scale back your plans. Detail concrete, specific, and positive options in your preparation. For example, you can say that you’ll cover less territory or take more time if funds come in slower than you had hoped.
5. When in doubt, don’t.
So often, in the rush and stress of completing a funding request, the proposal writer is faced with decisions about what to include – references and newspaper clippings, for example. There’s a natural but counterproductive tendency to pile on information, perhaps with the thought that bulk is impressive. The end result of these poor editing choices is a mammoth and dense proposal that works against the goal of creating enthusiasm for your work. If you want your proposal to be read, be judicious.
6. Offer to meet. Once.
Let the funder know you’ll be glad to come by and talk about your work and, if appropriate, bring other staff or board members. If the funder says okay, set up the meeting on her terms. If she’s reluctant, let it drop, so you don’t provide a reason for her to stop taking your calls.
7. Help assure repeat funding by reporting what you did AND what you didn’t accomplish.
In your proposal you committed yourself to doing various things. When you report back to the foundation, methodically demonstrate that you did in fact do what you promised. But we live in an imperfect world and few things turn out exactly as we hoped. Don’t duck talking about what you didn’t expect. Point out what happened differently from what you had hoped for and give specific reasons why this was the case. Don’t make excuses; just be matter-of-fact about the various outcomes, both planned for and not.
Martin Teitel, former CEO of the Cedar Tree Foundation in Boston, is author of The Ultimate Insider’s Guide to Winning Foundation Grants, published by Emerson & Church.