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What Grantmakers Want Applicants to Know

July 2003

Two years ago, GuideStar asked a group of grantmakers what they would most like to tell applicants. The idea was to come up with some sound advice that would help nonprofits increase their chances of success in the competition for foundation money.

The resulting recommendations, 15 in all, were so good we felt the need to revive them. The grantmakers who shared their advice are Nathanael Berry, program director of the Sandy River Charitable Foundation in Farmington, Maine; Michelle L. Greanias, director of grants management at the Fannie Mae Foundation in Washington, D.C.; Kippy Ungerleider King, grants associate for the Mathile Family Foundation in Dayton, Ohio; and Tom Springer, staff writer and editor at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in Battle Creek, Michigan.

  1. Do your homework—research, research, research
    Before sending your application, make sure the organization supports the kind of program or activity you want to fund. Grantmakers, Michelle Greanias explains, face "an incredible demand ... for our limited funds." Thus proposals that "do not fit well within our programs ... will likely not be competitive."

    Tom Springer agrees: "Foundations have their own funding priorities; [including] geographic considerations." He stresses that applicants should "plan on spending time to research and identify potential foundations who appear to have the best fit with regard to the type of program or target audience you are seeking funding for."

    Grant guidelines are one source of this information. Greanias urges applicants to "read our guidelines carefully." Nathanael Berry advises, "If you don't fit, don't apply. If you are unsure, contact the foundation and discuss the matter, or submit an application that is straightforward."

    Springer suggests checking an organization's Web site to identify its funding priorities. He notes that applicants can also ask for recent programming information, copies of requests for proposal (RFPs), and the most current annual report.

  2. Don't limit your search to the "top ten" largest foundations
    According to Tom Springer, "The best fit and least competition for dollars may be through a local community foundation."

  3. Follow the application guidelines
    Kippy Ungerleider King urges grant seekers to pay special attention to "guidelines that specify proposal length, content and any additional documentation that is requested." She also notes that "all financial information that is requested should be provided without hesitation."

  4. Be concise
    "Avoid using a lot of adjectives that 'puff up' your organization," Michelle Greanias advises. "It's hard to see around the extra words to determine what you are actually doing. A professional presentation outlining who you are and what you are trying to accomplish is much easier to assess."

    Nathanael Berry echoes her sentiments: "Keep proposals/applications short and to the point. We will ask for more information if needed."

  5. Be specific
    "Provide a strong and credible description of the need for the project, especially if the project is community based," says Kippy Ungerleider King.

    Tom Springer advises, "Don't provide a list of possible different projects with the hope that the grantmaker will pick out one of the ideas that best meets their priorities. Be specific and tailored in your request for support." Should a grantmaker permit your organization to submit more than one proposal, he recommends that you "put the requests in separate letters so they can each be reviewed by the appropriate team." This procedure, he explains, "could potentially speed up the review time."

  6. Define precisely your goals, how you will reach them, and how you will measure your success
    "Make sure your project has clear, reasonable and measurable outcomes," advises Kippy Ungerleider King.

    "Be very specific about outputs (things you can count) and outcomes (changes in status or behaviors)," adds Michelle Greanias. "Help us understand exactly what your goals are and how you know when you meet those goals. It is easier for the foundation to make an investment when it knows what it will 'get' for its money."

  7. Show how the project relates to your organization's future
    Kippy Ungerleider King advocates, "Have a strategic plan that communicates the long-term growth of the organization demonstrating where you want to go and how you're going to get there." Link your proposal to the strategic plan.

  8. Describe how you will fund the project once the grant money runs out
    "The foundation," explains Michelle Greanias, "will not want to fund your organization in perpetuity. You will have a much better chance of being funded if you have a long-term fundraising strategy for the project/program that phases out the solicited foundation's support." Such a plan, however, "doesn't mean you can't come back for funding of future projects."

  9. Think beyond money
    "Is there some other way that the funder can help you?" asks Michelle Greanias. Perhaps they can provide volunteers, technical assistance, in-kind donations, loans, or meeting space. "It might be better to build a relationship through non-monetary contributions before you hit them up with a big funding request," she explains.

  10. Make sure the application is legible
    Your fifth-grade teacher was right: neatness counts. Tom Springer notes, "If the request or address information is not legible, a review may not be conducted and/or a response to the request may never be received."

  11. Provide clear contact information
    Specifically, Tom Springer advises:

    • Make sure an individual, organization, and complete address or valid e-mail address are indicated on the letterhead or within the letter itself.
    • If the letterhead indicates multiple organizations, indicate in the letter or signature block which organization is to receive the response.
    • If several individuals are signing the submitted request, identify one person for future contact.

  12. Avoid sending piles of fliers, videos, books, and similar materials
    "Instead," Nathanael Berry advises, "make a list of what is available, a summary if not self-explanatory, and how to obtain items easily."

  13. Don't send copies of the same request to multiple contacts at an organization
    According to Tom Springer, multiple submissions merely increase costs for both grant seekers and grantmakers. "Additional postage, supplies, and increased handling are just a few of the human and financial expenses that result," he explains.

  14. Send information electronically whenever possible
    "In most cases," says Nathanael Berry, "you are paying for the connection—use it! Post annual reports, audit reports, IRS determination letter, organization history, and any general information on publicly available sites (your own, GuideStar, etc.). Use links to this information wherever appropriate ... , and avoid reproducing the same information over and over. Cut and paste if links won't do. E-mail when appropriate."

    But, Tom Springer cautions, "Avoid faxing or submitting requests via the Internet and then following up with a hard copy in the mail." He also advises applicants to "give the grantmaking organization time to receive and initially process/acknowledge the request before calling to see if they have received it. Grantmaking organizations typically receive anywhere from hundreds to thousands of requests per year. In the event your request cannot be located or was not received, the person to whom you speak should be able to advise you on the best way to resubmit."

  15. Start early and be patient
    "It may take awhile to identify and locate a funding partner for a project," Tom Springer notes. "While it can be disheartening to receive one decline letter after another, many projects are successful at locating dollars eventually."

    Springer also warns, "Don't expect to send a letter for support and expect the check to arrive the very next month. Grantmaking priorities are often set years in advance and thoughtful review processes do not readily accommodate the quick turnaround time grant seekers sometimes demand."
Following these suggestions doesn't guarantee that you will receive the funds you seek, but they will make your application more competitive. As Nathanael Berry notes, "A healthy grant relationship involves trust. Trust is earned, and involves both grantmaker and grant receiver. Approach every application and project/organizational decision with this in mind."

"Grantmakers," he concludes, "should be doing the same on their end!"

Suzanne E. Coffman, 2003
© Philanthropic Research, Inc.