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PSST! Listen, Do You Want to Know a Secret? Do you Promise Not to Tell?* Here’s How to Write Foundation Proposals

Hey you!! That’s right, you! The nonprofit Executive Director lurking in the back. Confused about how to write foundation proposals? I shouldn’t really do this, but, just between me and you, and if you promise not to tell anyone, I’ll let you in on some of the secrets of writing foundation proposals.

Many nonprofit folks, and particularly the “True Believers” I wrote about in True Believers and Grant Writing: Two Cautionary Tales, are hopelessly confused about getting foundation funds and writing foundation proposals. There are basically two ways to get access to foundation funds: the fairy tale way and the hard work way. In the fairy tale world, the nonprofit person (e.g., Executive Director, President, Founder, what have you) cozies up to the foundation representative (ideally, Bill Gates) and breathlessly describes how their new organization will bring instant water to thirsty parts of the world (just add liquid!) or a similar idea. Mr. Gates will be so impressed that he will reach into his Tom Bihn Manpurse**, pull out a checkbook, wad of cash or debit card (depending on the age of the dreamer), and the funding is accomplished.

We call this kind of approach to getting foundation grants “relationship funding” because it depends on the nonprofit developing a relationship with the funder. While this can work, it takes a lot of time and luck. Also, very few folks actually know foundation reps. Any of you nonprofit folks out there play Bunco with Oprah? I didn’t think so. Being serious, most foundations either hide behind an accountant/lawyer/flak catcher type, who you can’t develop a relationship with because there is no one to develop it with, or have a staff, whose job is partially to make potential applicants feel like they’re special (similar to the role of the field deputy in your congressperson’s district office) without actually making any commitments.

People ask us all the time if we have “special relationships” with funders, which always makes me laugh. Let’s say I regularly play bridge with Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. Why would I use my influence on your project, as opposed to the dozens of other projects we work on in a given year or for a project dear to my stone-like heart? In other words, even if we had influence, which we don’t, why would we rent it? So, if any would-be grant writer tells you they have special influence, walk away quickly, as they are likely an amateur. Putting it in Entourage terms, if you want to get into the hottest club in LA, it helps to know Vince, not Drama. When callers ask about developing relationships with funders, I always suggest that they criss-cross the US flying first class in hopes of sitting next to Bill or Oprah. They probably actually probably fly in private jets, but you get the idea.

If developing relationships with foundations is pretty much a fairy tale exercise, how do nonprofits get foundation grants? Here’s the really bad news: through hard work. The task starts with deciding what you’re trying to fund. In the foundation world, there are essentially the following four funding types:

  • Start-Up Grant: This one is for new organizations. The challenge is that you have to convince the foundation that your organization can actually do something, because presumably nothing has yet been done so far other than to identify a problem. But all organizations have to start somewhere, so if you need start-up funds, go for it.
  • Capital Grant: Favored by Boys & Girls Clubs, religious organizations, etc., this means you want to build a building, buy a van fleet or the like. Lots of foundations love capital grants because they can put their name on the project, and they’re easy to evaluate. Either the building is built or it isn’t. In the case of the largest foundation in the world, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, they decided to give themselves an enormous capital grant to build a 12-acre “campus”—or maybe Taj Mahal is more appropriate—in downtown Seattle. Personally, I think it would be better if they simply bought a couple of the hundreds of vacant and abandoned office buildings in Detroit or Flint, but where’s the fun in that?
  • Operating Funds: This means you’re seeking funds for everything done by the nonprofit—the organization is already doing lots of great things but needs more money to do them. From the foundation’s perspective, this is a bit like feeding a stray cat, as they know you will be back for more. But many foundations like operations projects because they recognize that established organizations have to have enough money to keep the lights on.
  • Special Project/Program Development: Let’s say your organization provides supportive services to Cyclopes. A special project could be to conduct outreach to work with left-handed Cyclopes. Foundations often like funding the development of special projects, particularly if you can link the project to some emerging crisis. If you were going to fund Project NUTRIA, as we described it in an earlier post, you would pitch it as a special project.

Keep in mind that not every foundation will fund all of these four project types—a foundation that funds capital grants may love your charitable purpose but not be interested in supporting operations. While we think it is best to settle on a project type before doing research to find funders, it can be done the other way around by finding the funders first and bending your concept to meet the type of projects they will fund.

Once you’ve crystallized your concept, it’s time to do the research into what foundations might fund you. More or less, foundations use the following filters—the details of which are usually specified somewhere in their guidelines—to funnel applications:

  • Geography: While some foundations fund nationally, most foundations fund in a specific place or region (e.g., Owatonna, MN, Southern California, etc.), or my personal favorite, “areas of company operations.” Let’s see, where does Wal-Mart not operate? Chicago, Boston, and one or two other places. Keep in mind that a foundation that funds in Poughkeepsie is unlikely to fund a project in Ashtabula, no matter how much they care about your cause.
  • Charitable Purpose: Some foundations want to help at-risk youth, some are interested in health issues and a very few just want to do something good, whatever that means. It is critical that you find funders who care about what you care about. True Believers often stumble on this filter because they cannot believe that anybody fails to share their passion. Also, try to avoid embarrassing mistakes: if your organization approaches at-risk youth services from an evangelical Christian perspective, a foundation that talks about Jewish philanthropic giving on their website is not likely to fund you, so save the postage.
  • How The Grant Will be Used: See the project concept discussion above. If you’ve managed to find a foundation that wants to fund Cyclops services in Owatonna and you want to build transitional housing for homeless Cyclops, make sure the foundation will fund a capital campaign before you send in the proposal.

Now, it’s time for letting you in on the really big foundation grant writing secret, or as is said in the TV biz The Reveal: How to organize an initial foundation proposal. Unless directed otherwise by the guidelines, we format them as five-page, single spaced letters. Why five pages? Because foundations almost never want a longer proposal and often want a one to three page letter of inquiry. We call the initial submission narratives “foundation letter proposals” and here’s how to organize them:

  • Date, address block and salutation.
  • Introduction paragraph, that includes the ever popular “five w’s and the h.”
  • Goal and objectives. See this post for help in writing these: The Goal of Writing Objectives is to Achieve Positive Outcomes (Say What?).
  • Background on the problem or a needs assessment. Don’t use too many citations, since, unlike government proposals, in foundation proposals you’re aiming for the heart, not the head.
  • Program description. Make this count, because this is where you tell the funder what you plan to do and how the money will be spent.
  • Timeline. We usually do these as a simple double column table.
  • Evaluation plan (a paragraph will do).
  • Staffing plan and budget request. A few sentences, along with a simple attached line item budget/budget justification in Excel will get the job done.
  • Background on the organization. Who are you, and why are you qualified?
  • Acknowledgment. A short paragraph on how you will acknowledge the grant: press releases, name on the building, larger than life statues of Bill and Melinda astride white chargers in front of the building, etc.
  • Summary paragraph.

I know this is pretty much the same as learning how to write a five-paragraph theme, as Miss Cruikshank taught me in eighth grade English at Sandburg Junior High, now Middle School when dinosaurs walked the earth, but writing foundation proposals is really not that complicated—like golf, all you have to do is hit that little ball 400 yards into the tin cup 18 times in less than five strokes a hole. No problem. Of course, it helps to be Tiger Woods, and in writing foundation proposals, it’s a lot easier to simply hire Seliger + Associates. But now you know the secrets, so get busy and write.

* This is a steal from the lyrics of charming, but somewhat forgotten Beatles tune, Do You Want To Know a Secret that I liked about the time I was in Miss Cruikshank’s class.

** This reference is designed to poke fun at Jake, who carries his Tom Bihn Messenger Bag everywhere, stuffed with a laptop, books, tupperware containers with fried tofu remains and assorted other items he can’t be without. While I am way too old for a manpurse, Jake did get me to buy this Tom Bihn Laptop Bag in a particularly annoying shade of avocado green.