One of my favorite sections in the revised edition of my book the Ultimate Insider’s Guide to Winning Foundation Grants is called “The Grant Seeker’s Reality Check.” In 10 brief chapters I examine, from the vantage point of one who served for 40 years as a foundation CEO, a host of dos and don’ts when preparing and submitting proposals.
You’ll discover, for instance, the four things you should never do when approaching foundations, the five mistakes many if not most applicants make, and seven ways to increase the chance of your proposal receiving full attention. In this space, I’ll share a handful of suggestions to increase the likelihood of your next proposal getting funded.
To insure you’re targeting the correct funder, obtain and study their grants list for the past three years. Pay attention to more than the organizations that received support. It will also be helpful to know the lowest, highest, and typical amounts granted, the grant type (for example, general support versus project support), and the duration of the award—single versus multi-year.
Funders want to know what they’re getting for their money. That’s why so many of the items we buy come in transparent packaging. Your proposal should be a clear container showing exactly what will result from the funder’s investment. Concrete, measurable results will provide core reasons for funders to support you.
So often, in the rush and stress of completing a funding request, the proposal writer is faced with decisions about what to include. There’s a natural but counterproductive tendency to pile on information, perhaps with the thought that bulk is impressive. The end result can be a mammoth and dense proposal that works against the goal of creating enthusiasm for your work. When in doubt of including a piece of correspondence or documentation, don’t.
When it comes to presenting your budget, you’re indicating that you know what resources are needed to achieve the results you want, and that you can access and deploy these resources efficiently. Are you absolutely sure the amounts you list are prudent? Not only should your budget add up—and avoid simple math errors—but it also has to support the logic of the proposal’s narrative. For example, a $100,000 budget to reconstruct 16 flooded houses won’t make sense, nor will $700,000 to hire two new staff. Be certain that everything in your proposal is accounted for in your budget. Conversely, omit budget details that aren’t fully explained in the proposal narrative.
Foundations are wary of all-or-nothing funding strategies, especially when pressed by more requests than they can fund. If you’re asked the question, “What will you do if we only support part of your request?” be ready with a credible fallback position that shows how your work will go forward with partial funding.
There’s no need to gush or order flowers, but send a thank-you note to the program officer, whether you receive funding or not. Since he or she worked on your behalf, letting them know you recognize and appreciate their advocacy solidifies the feeling of relationship, which is central to good fundraising now or in the future.
Get your reports in on time, as this clearly demonstrates competence, respect, good planning, and success. When you force the funder to chase you to comply with the contract you signed, you’re establishing a counter-productive dynamic. Most funders have long memories.
We live in an imperfect world, and sometimes you’ll fail to do what you said you would. Don’t duck talking about the unforeseen or unexpected. Point out what happened differently from what you had planned or 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.
In closing, I’ll add Don’t Beat Yourself Up. Keep in your mind, no matter what others may say, that you’re employed to do the best you can making funding requests. But it is your organization, with its board, staff, and program, that is the applicant. If successful, you did your component of the group’s work well. If funding didn’t come through, that doesn’t mean you did poor work. It means the foundation said no. Ultimately, getting funded is a result of the entire organization’s efforts. You’re but one element.
Martin Teitel, former CEO of the Cedar Tree Foundation in Boston, is author of the newly updated edition of The Ultimate Insider’s Guide to Winning Foundation Grants, from which this article is adapted.