« February 2020 | Back to Eye on FDO | April 2020 »

March 2020 (1 posts)

A Foundation CEO’s Six-Step Formula for Winning a Grant
March 31, 2020

Woman working on proposalIn my long career as a funder, I loved the satisfaction of helping people who were doing wonderful things for other people. During those many years, I saw few proposals that advocated for bad ideas. But I did encounter an astonishing number of funding requests that were cast in the worst possible light.

In this space I’ll touch upon the recommendations offered in my book, The Ultimate Insider’s Guide to Winning Foundation Grants, to help put your organization in the right position to land your next big grant.



Even in this sophisticated age, there are people that still plug a list of funders into their database and churn out generic proposals.

To ensure that you are targeting the right prospects, use a robust grantseeking tool like Foundation Directory Online to identify funders that match your criteria. With FDO you can uncover new funders and gain insights to build better prospect lists.



For most foundations, the standard technique they require of grant seekers is the LOI—Letter of Inquiry.

A letter of inquiry distills the organization’s request down to something brief. It gives the foundation an opportunity to express interest, and provides grantees an opportunity to receive feedback that might result in winning a grant.



As a proposal writer, know that your goal is to motivate the funder’s program officer to assign a code to your proposal that keeps it alive in the evaluation and screening process. At this stage, you should have no other goal.

I drill down to specifics in my book, but here I’ll simply offer four short tips:

  1. Present solutions, not problems. Although many organizations are indeed trying to address serious problems, I’ve seen far too many proposals that are almost all problem statement, with scant information about exactly what the applicant is going to do to remedy the concern.
  2. Write and rewrite. Avoid jargon and technical terms; use metaphor sparingly; equate statistics with cayenne pepper—a little goes a long way; and keep the words flowing with short sentences that draw the reader in.
  3. Focus on what you’re already achieving and how you plan to continue. Instead of telling me that if our foundation doesn’t give you money something awful will happen or that if we don’t fund you, you might cease to exist, better proposals say, “We’re doing something wonderful here, and we’re going to do it with or without you. With you, it’ll happen faster and better. Please join us in this excellent work.”
  4. Don’t bypass the system. In the course of your foundation research, you might discover that you’re familiar with someone on the board, or someone who goes to church with that person, or has a kid on their soccer team. So you figure, I’ll use this to my advantage and go straight to that individual. However, it is strongly encouraged that you resist this route.



Although it’s possible to receive a grant without ever meeting the funder, there are good reasons for having such a meeting.

First, some funders aren’t comfortable with a prospective grantee or a new idea until they’ve interacted beyond the piles of paper. Second, there are some ideas and facets of nonprofit work that must be seen to be appreciated. And, finally, some grantmakers are required to meet the organization they fund.


💡 Pro tip: Establishing personal connections with funders is a pivotal part of the fundraising process. Leverage FDO's integration with LinkedIn to quickly see how you are connected with key decision makers and establish relationships.



After you’re told the fabulous news about your grant award, I recommend you do three things:

  • Sit down with a tasteful piece of stationery or cheery card and send a thank-you note to the funder to cement your new relationship.
  • Put the funder on your mailing list—judiciously. If you have a monthly or quarterly newsletter, put the funder on the list for a free lifetime subscription. If your organization holds events, and the funder is local, make sure they’re invited.
  • Take an empty file folder, label it “Foundation Reports,” and place it on your desk. As successes or interesting events in your organization are documented, remember to slip a copy into the folder. When it comes time to report on a grant, reach into this file, go back 12 months in what you pull out, and make photocopies for your funder.



There are three reasons for paying close attention to grant reporting.

First, most nonprofits hope to receive repeat funding. Those that are late or fail to comply with reporting requirements will be on shaky ground for a renewal grant.

Second, you might actually teach the funder something. In most foundations, the board is interested in how their grants turn out, and they might even enjoy reports or at least summaries.

Finally, sitting down and summarizing what you did over the past year is an excellent way to improve your work. It forces you to step back from your daily tasks and think about what you accomplished, what your greatest challenges were, and what you’ve learned.

By Martin Teitel, former CEO of the Cedar Tree Foundation in Boston, is author of the newly updated edition of The Ultimate Insider’s Guide to Winning Foundation Grants, from which this article is adapted.