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The Portal Problem—Three Keys to the Funder's Door

In the epic journey from crafting a grant application to depositing the funds, we focus on creating the best proposal we can.

Too often, though, we neglect the very first challenge: getting our proposal onto the desk of the foundation's program officer. If she never sees it, its excellence will be for nought—literally.

To handle the torrent of incoming Letters of Inquiry or proposals, foundations deploy a number of tactics, as I outline in my book The Ultimate Insider's Guide to Winning Foundation Grants.

One method is to use extremely specific and constrained online forms. In addition, foundations employ staff—or interns—to do the basic sorting. It's a rare foundation whose executive director slits open envelopes and reads each proposal.

Given this, there are three tactics you can use to maximize the chances that your proposal will wend its way to a decision-maker.

Two-Pivot Writing

Your essential points, especially the summary and the first sentences of each section, must be written for two distinct readers, and this is no easy task.

On the one hand, you must clearly communicate what you're doing to the initial screener, who may be a young intern or bored clerical staffer.

On the other hand, past this first portal is an experienced program officer who will be screening with a more experienced eye. If you simplify too much for the first pivot, the second-level screener may simply toss your work aside after perusing your unsubtle summary.

Since techniques vary, there is little likelihood you'll know the initial screening method of a given funder. The safest route, in addition to assuming the worst, is to test every word for its power and lack of ambiguity, and ruthlessly carve out jargon and technical language.

This brings us to the second step.

Summary Execution

It's possible—I myself have seen it and done it—that the initial screening will consist of reading only your proposal's summary, whether online or on paper. This means your entire effort could fall by the wayside if the summary is incomplete, unclear, or dull.

Even worse, how far your summary is read could depend entirely on its first sentence!

That means you must do three things:

First, allocate what seems like an inordinate amount of time to creating the summary and its golden first sentence. Your whole funding project could rest on this section, so be as generous with your creativity and attention as you would hope the funder will be.

Second, never create a summary in isolation. Have at least one other person, hopefully more, read your evolving drafts and support you in crafting a crystal clear and compelling opening to your proposal.

Third, follow the basic proposal rules I've written about in my book: create prose that is clear, concise, and compelling. Never fall into sales-pitch language, full of vacuous superlatives like unique, best, first. Rather, enhance with the power of verbs; let the actions you'll be taking tell your story.

Your proposal summary must recite the purpose of the work, and the process used to achieve the stated outcome. The screener must be made unambiguously aware of how the work is connected to the funder's goals. And just as you need to avoid hype, you must make connections to the funder's guidelines evident in your summary without ever parroting the guidelines themselves—this common practice makes you look pandering and insincere.

The Bell-Shaped Curve

Once you've paid careful attention to the two-pivot portal and the creation of a sensational opening sentence and summary, comb through your list of would-be funders with a critical mindset. Which funders are smack in the center of your bullseye? Which ones are a bit peripheral? Now, scratch the latter group off your list.

I know it's hard to restrain yourself, but you need to avoid wishful (and wasteful) thinking.

If you picture a bell-shaped curve, with terrible proposals at one tail and shoe-ins at the other, you might think aiming for the middle is a solid strategy. The trouble is, with so many proposals being sent, even good ones are tossed early in the process. I've had many instances in my career running foundations when very good and even excellent proposals never made it to my desk. I was focused on selecting from among the superlative requests. It's that small pile you want to be a part of.

Many of us who have been fundraisers report to our executive director citing the number of proposals we've sent out. Our goal is to show how hard we tried, shifting blame for lack of success to the funders.

The problem with indiscriminately sending proposals is that yours lands on the remote side of the bell-shaped curve. Worse, the cost of the foundation hiring additional screeners comes 100 percent out of the funds that could have been spent as grants.

Getting through the portal can be frustratingly difficult. Don't give up hope. Someone is going to get the grant. Focus all your attention on making sure that someone is you.

The-Portal-Problem-Three-Keys-to-the-Funders-Door_Martin-Teitel.jpgThe preceding is a guest post by Martin Teitel, MSW, PhD. Martin is the author of The Ultimate Insider's Guide to Winning Foundation Grants, published by Emerson & Church. He worked in public and private charitable foundations and non-profits for 50 years.

Topics: Fundraising