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More Insights into Private Foundations: Interview with Martin Teitel

Martin Teitel spoke with his publisher about the topic of his new book, The Ultimate Insider's Guide to Winning Foundation Grants. GuideStar has published an excerpt from the book, and we're pleased to be able to share Mr. Teitel's additional thoughts with you.

Why do foundations seem to be such "black boxes"?

Many foundations seal themselves off for two reasons. For one thing, there's little incentive to become more transparent and accountable, even though some try. But second, foundations have to somehow insulate themselves from the onslaught of fundraisers, many of whom don't do enough basic research to learn that they're wasting the funder's—and their own—time.

What prompted you to write a book about the inner workings of foundations?

After nearly 40 years working for both nonprofit organizations and the foundations that fund them, I could see that the people who get foundation grants aren't necessarily the ones doing the best work. It seemed like a good idea to try to help level the playing field.

Are you saying that technique can trump better ideas?

Absolutely—especially when people doing good work don't effectively communicate what they're doing.

That must mean you've unwittingly funded some bad projects now and then.

Not at all. We've sometimes funded some good proposals when we could have funded better ones. Technique doesn't bamboozle us into doing dumb things, but it may give an edge to someone with an already good project.

Is the insider knowledge you're sharing in your book secret? Why hasn't anyone written something like this before?

There are some great books out there on raising money from foundations written by people outside the foundation community. I suspect that many of my colleagues, already overwhelmed with an avalanche of funding requests, aren't too interested in increasing the flow.

Grantseeking has become such an industry ... with workshops every other week, specialized consultants, a multitude of how-to books. It all seems like a cat and mouse game now. Does it have to be this way?

Emphatic no! If people put more care and attention into their funding efforts, especially if they tried to create a mix of different kinds of funding—rather than rely heavily on foundations—then there'd be less need for all the professional hand-holding.

Is it likely foundations will receive even more proposals as a result of your book?

Perhaps. But everyone should have a fair shot at the $25 billion in grants that's available each year. This is a big business. Why should highly paid experts and consultants have the advantage?

Considering the sheer number of proposals they receive, do foundations really review everything that comes in?

All foundations open and read their mail. So there's always rudimentary screening. But careful screening often isn't needed, because once you open the envelope it becomes apparent the writer didn't pay enough attention to how that foundation works. Separating the wheat from the chaff isn't all that hard, although it does take some time.

What's the single biggest mistake people applying for foundation grants make?

Something I see all the time is proposals that put a huge amount of detail into describing a particular problem, but they don't say nearly enough about what's going to be done, specifically and concretely, to address that problem. Years ago I read a "peace" proposal consisting of many pages of stark detail about the effects of nuclear explosions on human beings, including two pages of melting eyeballs and burning flesh. Tucked in the end were some general statements about the need for people to pay attention to this danger. There was no hope, no vision of a world that was improved, and very little about how we might get to a better place.

People say getting a grant is all about who you know. Is that true?

The power of access is greatly overrated. If I get a call from a friend asking for funding, yes, I'm likely to talk with her. But after that, I'll pass along her call to someone on the staff to avoid any conflict of interest.

But if the staff knows the boss is involved, won't they either subtly or overtly defer to you?

I doubt it. It just isn't that important to the granting process that I know someone with a proposal. My own mother once asked me for funding. I turned her down.

How important is the format of the proposal?

Well, a proposal written on the back of a napkin might not reflect good planning. But I once funded a group whose initial pitch was on a postcard, and certainly I'm not impressed by fancy binding and shiny presentation folders. Overall, what matters is clear, concise, and compelling writing.

What's the biggest misperception grantseekers have about foundations?

That they don't care. Foundation staff I know are passionate about the organizations they fund—I get buttonholed all the time by my colleagues, who want me to pay attention to groups they care about. When foundation boards turn down staff-recommended proposals, it's often devastating to the staff who tried to get that grant made.

Do you personally know firsthand the sting of having a proposal rejected?

Yes. It's happened to me many times. And even though it feels bad to turn down a group you know deserves a grant, the funder's angst doesn't compare to a grantseeker's terrible anxiety after being rejected, knowing that the people who are counting on you for their work and livelihood are going to be in jeopardy.

Is the phrase "approachable foundation" an oxymoron?

There's no doubt that the unaccountable power of foundations causes some of them to lose sight of the basics of courtesy. But in the last decade or so I've noticed some concerted effort on the part of foundations to treat the people who approach them better. I think this is because foundations became zealous in the 1980s and '90s about hiring more staff with real experience in nonprofits. And also some foundation board members began realizing that staff are their public face. One board member of a family foundation once told me, "You're us more than we are!"

Will a person who reads The Ultimate Insider's Guide to Winning Foundation Grants stand a much better chance of landing a grant?

If someone reads this book and does a great job of telling their story, organizing their material, and sending it to the right funder, then yes, you bet, that person's proposal is much more likely to rise to the top of the funder's pile—assuming the project is worthwhile in the first place. I worked hard in writing this book to share every tip and trick that I've learned in four decades in the funding and nonprofit community. Ultimate Insider's Guide isn't magic, but it should give a strong boost to people who are working to fund their organizations.

Tell me the oddest proposal you've ever received.

"Space Cadets of America." They wanted white jumpsuits. With epaulets.

Can I have a grant?

Sure. Let's see your proposal. In triplicate, please.

© 2012, Emerson & Church, Publishers. Reprinted with permission.

more-insights-into-private-foundations_Martin-Teitel.jpgMartin 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.

Topics: Fundraising