A few years ago we conducted foundation grant source research and wrote ten foundation proposals for a national membership nonprofit that wanted to do a complex education study. One of the national foundations we identified, and wrote a proposal to, awarded the client $200,000. The award is terrific but not the end of the story—if it were, we wouldn’t be writing this post. The funder then referred our client to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest foundation in the world, who awarded our client a still larger grant. The study was completed and the American education system presumably improved.
Everyone who works in the grant world knows that the Gates Foundation usually doesn’t accept unsolicited proposals.* The Gates Foundation has to come to the organization.
This specific example illustrates a general principle: with any kind of grant writing, but especially with foundation funding, it’s impossible to know what might happen when the proposal is submitted. Every big foundation knows every other big foundation. Local foundations know other local foundations. Foundations are often fond of funding organizations that have been funded by other foundations. Life many human endeavors, the first grant is the hardest and funding typically get easier after that. If you get into the foundation club, you’ll find that being a member is much more pleasant and fun than watching from the outside.** (Venture capital works the same way.)
But there’s no easy way in, unless you happen to have a friend or relative who happens to sit on a foundation’s board. We, like most people, don’t have any friends or relatives like that. The only practical approach in seeking foundation grants is to carefully research foundations, prepare a compelling boilerplate foundation letter proposal***, customize this generalized proposal to create technically correct submissions to several plausible foundations, submit the proposals, and retire for a cocktail or three.
(Warning: The next paragraph is a shameless plug. Skip it if you’re likely to be offended.)
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(Advertising section over.)
Our client’s story also illustrates the challenge in responding to common questions that potential clients frequently ask. They want to know how many clients we’ve gotten “funded.” But this case demonstrates how hard it can be to answer. When our client was initially funded, he didn’t tell us. If we were trying to keep a client batting average—which we don’t, because a batting average is a waste of time, given the wide range of our clients in terms of size, track record, location, type and so on—we wouldn’t have known that he should be included.
In addition, it can be hard to answer the question, “What is ‘funded?'” We wrote and submitted the first proposal, so we’ll take credit for it. But the first funder, which is very large, led directly funding for the save project by the second. Does the Gates Foundation grant count for our tally? Did we get the client funded only for the original $200,000 grant, or for the millions that followed? One could reasonably argue both sides, since the second funder wouldn’t have appeared without the first one.
* The Gates Foundation may run specific RFP processes from time to time, but those are narrow and rarer. Almost anyone who says they want to submit to the Gates Foundation but who doesn’t have connection is actually saying they don’t know what they’re talking about.
** If you want a hot date to the Prom, it helps if you’ve had dates to fall and winter formal dances first.
*** We use the term “foundation letter proposal” to characterize the initial foundation submission. We initially format these as a five-page, single-spaced letters, since many foundations request a short LOI. The final submissions may be customized to create the appropriate letters with proposals, on-line inserts, or some combination—depending on the requirements of the particular foundations.