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Questions I'm Most Often Asked about Winning Foundation Grants

December 2013

In my decades of running charitable foundations, I read tens of thousands of proposals. Many share the same characteristics I'll touch on below.

Since nearly all foundations are required to disburse some of their funds each year, grants are always made—to someone. Over the years, grantseekers have asked me how they can increase their chances of being among the ones chosen.

Here are answers to the questions I'm most often asked:

1. What are the main characteristics of successful funding proposals?

Let's start with the three Cs: clear, concise, and compelling.

Clear means you eliminate jargon, you write for the actual audience that'll read your proposal, and you leave out all math and formulas, unless you know for certain that recipients of the proposal have technical prowess.

Concise means you don't go one letter over the prescribed limit. You remember that torrents of words degrade their impact. And you know that sharp points get people's attention: use a spear, not a club.

Compelling means you let ideas do the work. You infect the reader with your passion and inspire her with the story of your work. You let the facts do your selling for you.

2. Increasingly I see foundations say they don't accept unsolicited proposals. How am I supposed to get a grant?

Foundations that receive fewer proposals can reduce overhead, freeing up more money for grant making. That's a positive. If you poke around a funder's Web site, you'll usually uncover the letter of inquiry process they prefer (if not require). The LOI is essentially a mini-proposal. It does add a step for you but it's really win-win, since you reduce the labor of finding out if you fit within the priorities and the funder has smaller mounds of paper to paw through.

3. I keep churning out LOIs but still get turned down. What am I doing wrong?

It's entirely understandable that many fundraisers have a standard LOI they send to whatever foundation requires one. This is a mistake. Your funding future with that foundation depends entirely on this crucial step. You can't be too obsessive about customizing your LOI!

Two problems seem to thwart fundraisers when it comes to LOIs: one, they forget the three Cs I cited above and, two, they "bury the lede" as journalists say (you'd think journalists could spell better). In other words, they fail to put the main point of the story first.

LOIs arrive in stacks and are often hurriedly scanned, so they need to tease the reader with a finely crafted sentence that summarizes the project—indicating both subject matter and purpose. This sentence should be the gateway to an excellent, compelling summary paragraph. If you're writing a three-page LOI, you should plan to devote half of your time and creativity to that summary paragraph, because otherwise the excellence of the remaining sections may never be known by that funder.

4. I'm a development person, not an accountant. How can I improve the financial sections of my proposals?

Getting a grant is essentially a financial transaction. You need to meet the funder's general requirements, but you also need to demonstrate that you'll use the dollars provided with care and competence.

Go over your spreadsheet many times to check each number, and have a colleague double check. If the funder asks for a specified span of months or years, provide exactly what is requested, no more and no less. It's a pain to adjust your standard form, but this is what spreadsheet software is for.

In listing sources of support, don't forget non-grant items like material donations and the labor of volunteers. If you're asked to list where you intend to seek support, list where you've applied and where you plan to apply. This is an instance where you can speculate, but avoid the temptation to engage in science fiction—an astute funder will know if you're listing too many funders who are unlikely or impossible.

5. Can I ask why I was turned down?

Sure. That said, many funders aren't exactly forthcoming on this question. To increase your chance of getting a helpful response, do three things. First, use the communication channels that have already been established. If you worked with a program officer, call him, not the executive director or board chair. And if the preferred method of contact is e-mail, don't call!

Second, be precise in how you frame the question. You may want to express gratitude for being considered, along with an interest in knowing how to increase your chance of success in the future.

Third, do not, no matter what, argue or complain, even if it becomes obvious you were misunderstood or that the funder didn't follow their own guidelines. Get the information you need and leave it at that.

6. If I'm turned down, can I try again?

Unless the funder says you can't, by all means. You may have learned about a fixable flaw in your request. You may have been ahead of the funder's learning curve—they could catch up. The funder may need time to get used to your unique strategy or approach. In my career in funding, we supported many organizations that had been turned down at first.

7. Do funder guidelines describe accurately what they fund?

Funder guidelines are a good place to start. But guidelines are sometimes the result of compromises between differing perspectives on the foundation board. Also, guidelines usually stay fixed for years, while the funder's understanding of a given area may evolve with each granting cycle. The one indisputable source of information on what foundations will fund is their grants list. Many foundations list grants on their Web sites. A few will send you a list. For the others, get a copy of their tax return, Form 990-PF.

8. I hate writing grant reports, in part because I doubt that they're read. Honestly, in your years as a funder, did you really look at our reports?

Many funders read reports, at least quickly, and there's no way to know in advance who does and doesn't. If you stiff funders on the report, they may think: "We gave these people $100,000 and they couldn't be bothered to write seven pages? Fat chance we'll give them another penny."

Put antipathy aside and keep your side of the bargain when you signed the grant contract. Individuals who work for nonprofits are often motivated by principles like honesty and trustworthiness. The funders who support your work should see the expression of these sentiments as much as anyone.

Martin Teitel
© 2013, Emerson & Church Publishers.

Martin Teitel is the author of The Ultimate Insider's Guide to Winning Foundation Grants: A Foundation CEO Reveals the Secrets You Need to Know. He has worked in the world of nonprofits for 45 years, 30 of them for grantmaking foundations, including a 12-year stint as CEO of the Cedar Tree Foundation in Boston. Teitel has a PhD in philosophy from the Union Institute, Cincinnati, and a Master's in Social Work from San Diego State University. He is a field education supervisor for the Harvard Divinity School.

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Martin Teitel

Martin Teitel