We have all heard it before when planning for a major capital fund drive: “We’ll get lots of money from foundations and grants!” Of course, there are varying degrees of truth in that declaration. While they can make some substantial gifts, foundations in general account for less than 10% of all charitable giving in America. To get the most attention from a foundation it is important to give them what they want. The old golden rule of fundraising applies to foundations perhaps more than with any other prospect, “He who has the gold – rules!”
The first step in understanding what the foundation wants is to determine how they want to receive the request. This provides a clear indication of the level of detail they use to make decisions regarding funding allocations. There are three basic forms of request used by foundations: letter of inquiry, letter of request, or full proposal.
In most cases, when a foundation asks for a letter of inquiry, they are interested only in receiving a one to two page letter that succinctly describes your request and your desire to submit a full proposal. The goal of a letter of inquiry, or preliminary proposal, is to receive an invitation to submit a full proposal. Always include a description of your organization, your funding request, statement of needs, project description and the names of any other large, influential or impressive funders/donors, both prospective and committed. Close by asking for an invitation to submit a full proposal.
A letter of inquiry is used by the foundation to assess the compatibility of your project goals with their funding goals. If, after reviewing your letter of inquiry, the foundation determines there is sufficient agreement they generally request a full proposal with the necessary attachments. If invited to submit a proposal, the foundation usually provides the information and attachments they require.
Often, foundations will clearly state the inquiry process as their preferred method for proposal selection. However, in many cases, a funder will simply state that they do not accept unsolicited requests. One strategy to work within that restriction is to telephone a representative of the foundation and strike up a conversation about your organization. Draft a call sheet prior to this, highlighting the key points of your mission and project, the pertinent aspects of the foundation, and the overlapping points that make them a good prospect. At the end of the conversation, ask them if they would accept a proposal from your organization.
When submitting a full proposal be prepared to be thorough. Foundations requesting a full proposal will usually give detailed instructions regarding submission of your project description, financial information, organizational information, etc. Additionally, they will specify the overall proposal format, number of pages and types and numbers of attachments. It is critically important to follow these guidelines carefully.
In my earliest days of proposal development, I completely omitted a question asked in an application because I presumed the funder knew my organization extremely well and did not need further explanation on that particular point. Wrong! Fortunately, I received a compassionate call, which put in plain terms that all proposals are rated on each question and funding is based on ranking. For that particular question I would receive a goose egg (0) and that would significantly decrease my chances for funding. In the many years since, I have sat on proposal screening panels and learned first hand the importance of thorough disclosure of all relevant information, regardless of prior knowledge by the funder.
Many foundations will ask you for a brief proposal, or letter, of no more than two pages, which includes your request and rationale. Take this deceptively simple approach as seriously as you do a full proposal. Use a full proposal format and condense it as a guide to insure you are including all of the relevant information.
For those foundations that do not stipulate, the content and attachment requirements vary. Your foundation research should guide your choices. There are many good websites that provide general proposal guidelines. The basics, however, are always: a case for support/statement of need, methodology, evaluation, project budget, qualifications (organization description), the IRS 501c3 determination letter, board of directors list and your organization's audit information.
Whether a brief two-page proposal letter, letter of inquiry or full proposal, and your request should be clearly organized, neatly written and signed by the administrator with the highest level of authority in your organization. Usually this is the president, CEO, or executive director. This conveys the vital indication of endorsement and support required by the foundation. It is always best to personalize your proposal as much as possible, and take steps to ensure your project stands out from the crowd. Circulate a listing of the foundation’s trustees and senior staff among your volunteers and board members. Exploit any personal connections between your organization’s supporters and the foundation’s insiders.
Much is contingent upon what you learn through your foundation research. Unless you find an indication otherwise, it never hurts to telephone a foundation or corporation to clarify requirements. This call is often the beginning of a good relationship! Make sure that the integrity of your organization, the quality of your project and the professionalism and personalization of your proposal combine to set your application apart from the field.
Custom Development Solutions, Inc., (CDS) is among the most sought after fundraising consulting firms specializing in the strategic planning and tactical execution of capital campaigns for non-profits throughout the United States and Canada. If you have a fundraising question, please call CDS at 800-761-3833 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.