If there is a mythical “pot-of-gold” in the nonprofit world it is the foundation grant. Many start-ups – as well as established nonprofits – look to grants from foundations as a cure-all; the answer to all fundraising problems. You can spot this tendency when you hear phrases such as “Bill Gates has a foundation, let’s submit a proposal.”
We talked with professional proposal writer Marlene Lynn recently and asked her to share her expertise. Lynn has written proposals to corporations and foundations for the past ten years; she works with her clients to manage grant funds received, and follow up with and report to funders. She is meticulous in her work, committed to her clients, and is an advocate of strategic proposal submission.
Saad & Shaw – Briefly, based on your experience, what are the three big “mistakes” nonprofits make when they begin writing to foundations for grant support?
Marlene Lynn – Number one is poor planning. This results in nonprofits being caught in a cycle of chasing the money – reacting to unexpected funding opportunities and hustling to meet deadlines. I call this working hard, not smart. A proactive approach is to allocate resources to conduct comprehensive prospect research and use this information to create a grant action work plan. You could think of this as the grants portion of your agency’s development plan.
Another mistake is writing a proposal for something that you cannot actually deliver, from program delivery to financial management of the grant funds. For example, when I am working with program staff to develop new objectives, they will commonly propose objectives they want to reach rather than objectives they are likely to reach. I advise proposing conservative objectives that can be reached, or better yet, exceeded.
Lack of attention to detail can sink your proposal. For example, I have seen a well prepared proposal discarded – not even read – because one form or signature was missing, or a staff person hit the “save” button instead of the “submit” button after completing an online proposal. I recommend having a second person check your work against the funder’s instructions.
Saad & Shaw – What are the elements of a well-written proposal?
Marlene Lynn – Get to the point early and make it interesting. Follow instructions. Make every word count. This often means getting rid of an adjective and changing the noun to say what you want. Picture your reader, facing a tower of proposals to review and getting tired or bored halfway through. Make it easy for them see the great work you are doing with succinct writing backed up with data. If you were to ask a stranger on the street to read your proposal would she understand it and find it compelling?
Saad & Shaw – What’s the difference if any between a well-written proposal and a funded proposal?
Marlene Lynn – A funded proposal sticks out from the crowd. It provides a track record of success in addressing problems that the funder has identified as a priority. It highlights what is unique about your organization. It is easy to read with information that flows from the opening statement to the closing remarks. It has heart and data references to back up the work. The proposal does not create barriers for the reader. For example, information is presented in the order it is requested, so if readers are using an evaluation checklist, they don’t have to search through your proposal for the information. The reader can see that you have done your homework, and that your work and their priorities are a strong match.
Saad & Shaw – What role can board members play in creating a climate where a foundation requests (or wants to receive) a proposal? What is an LOI?
Marlene Lynn – Sometimes a board member is acquainted with someone at a foundation or corporation. The board member can have a conversation – in person if possible – with their contact to tell them about the great work of the organization. The board member plans the key points of the conversation in advance with a development staff member, so the board member understands the foundation’s funding priorities and can tailor the conversation to fit this context. The board member can then report back on the level of interest the foundation has in a proposal, and instructions on when to submit a proposal or Letter of Interest (LOI), how much to ask, who to send it to, etc. An LOI is a Letter of Inquiry – a brief letter (two pages max) that introduces the foundation to the organization and may include informational enclosures such as brochures, annual report, and news articles about the organization.
Marlene Lynn – An LOI will begin with a sentence summarizing the request – how much is requested and for what. Other elements include a paragraph describing the organization – the year and reason the organization was founded, who founded it, its mission, and programs or services provided; description of the need the services address; how your organization addresses this need and why your organization is successful; key accomplishments/outcomes your organization has achieved in addressing the need; and a closing statement that includes the name, phone number and email of who may be contacted for more information. Always thank them for considering your request.
Saad & Shaw – What is “foundation research” and why is it important?
Marlene Lynn – Foundation research identifies grant funding prospects for your programs, including an assessment of the prospect’s funding potential, as well as funding criteria, application guidelines, deadlines, giving history, and procedures for submitting a proposal or LOI. I recommend doing the research, and putting the findings into a prospect report. This document will include on a list of funding prospects with an assessment of the funding potential for each prospect, as well as funding criteria, application guidelines, deadlines, giving history, and recommended next steps for cultivating and/or submitting a grant request.
Saad & Shaw – Should an organization submit a proposal if its programs are not an “exact fit” with the funder’s guidelines? What do you suggest an organization do when this is the case?
Marlene Lynn – I would see if a board member or volunteer has a connection with the funder, and if so, follow the recommended steps outlined in the above question. The funder may be able to make a gift from discretionary (unrestricted) funds based on this connection. Don’t be afraid to call the funder (unless their guidelines prohibit it), tell them your idea, and ask for their feedback. They will usually tell you whether to submit or what your prospects of a favorable review might be. If none of this is possible, you could weigh the input (how much resources are needed for the proposal or LOI) versus the possible output (amount of funding and reporting requirements).
Saad & Shaw – What do you suggest an organization do after submitting a proposal? Should they follow-up? Wait? What is the protocol?
Marlene Lynn – Not usually. The funders usually say when they make their decision. If you don’t hear back by that date, then it is appropriate to follow up unless their guidelines tell you not to. For grant requests that are denied, my advice is the opposite. Always ask the funder for feedback on your proposal, unless their guidelines or denial letter say not to. A phone call – human interaction – is best.
Saad & Shaw – Can you amend a submitted proposal if new information becomes available?
Marlene Lynn – No. However, if a funder is considering your proposal for a long time, you might send them an update letter on new benchmarks you have reached since your proposal was submitted, perhaps with your latest annual report.
Saad & Shaw – What needs to be in place for an organization to either work with a grant writer or to have someone on staff write the proposal?
Marlene Lynn – There needs to be funding in the budget (and the bank!) for the position(s), whether staff or consultant. This ensures that the work can be completed, and it shows funders that your organization is committed to achieving its mission. Funders don’t want to support programs that may not be around next year.