Agreement in the trenches: Less is more with foundation proposals

I consider myself to be an optimist, but I am also a skeptic. So when I read Martin Teitel’s article on foundation proposals and his assertion that mediocre proposals are not funded, I wanted to check this against both my personal experience as a funder and the experience of a group of development professionals.

Does Martin Teitel’s point align with development professionals’ opinions?

Teitel asserts there is no bell curve for funding proposals; anything less than perfect-fit, outstanding proposals do not get funding. In his experience, the proposals that are sent in as part of a mass submission from an organization fall short. This is a waste of resources on both sides, contributes to the inefficiencies in the sector and does more harm than good for organizations.

The perspective of foundations and the perspective of development professionals often differ. These sides disagree on outcomes, the size of grant awards and the length of proposals and more. However, in this case, the development perspective matched the foundation one.

Does activity=results?

I asked a handful of friends to share their experience in submitting proposals that were either rushed and not of top quality, an indirect fit with guidelines, or part of a mass mailing for their success rate. To a person, they said these proposals were rejected. And yet, all of them had submitted sub-par proposals in their careers. There is significant pressure to produce as a development professional and at times activity can be confused with results.

Misguided beliefs

There are some misguided beliefs that fuel this sort of proposal submission fallacy. We like to believe our cause is the most important, most relevant and most urgent one that exists, and that if we just share the information, others will be converted to that belief. The other is that foundation money is “easy” to get. From an objective view, neither of these beliefs is true. There are a multitude of important and worthy causes competing for limited resources and foundation dollars that are rarely simple to obtain or maintain. Foundations funding is not easy or consistent. Teitel suggests rejection rates for proposals are as high as 95 percent. In my experience, this is high, but rejection rates at 75 percent are not uncommon.

Cold prospects and multiple rejections

Aside from the inefficiencies Teitel cites, a number of rejected proposals can actually work against an organization. Foundation staff can be a good resource. In the discussion about your organization and funding priorities, if the program officer says, “In the 65 years of the foundation, no similar organization has ever received funds,” then do not apply. Don’t just send in an application because you thinks/he is wrong. S/he is not. You will not be funded. Harsh, but true. Save your time for the hot prospects, not even the warm ones. Being under resourced should make us more frugal and protective of our time, not the opposite. If you think some headway can be made in the future, don’t just send in a proposal, but continue conversations, gather data, follow the foundation’s communications and perhaps eventually submit an exemplary proposal. In my experience, organizations have a better chance with their first proposal, not their seventh or eighth. Foundations do fund new programs and organizations, but after discussion and education, not after 10 rejected proposals. One piece of data requested by trustees is often organizational history of requests-–proposals submitted, rejected and funded. If there are 10 rejections, the eleventh is an easy decision.

Return on investment

As development work increases in sophistication, I am encouraged to see more and more organizations calculating the return on investment for development efforts. Structuring foundation proposals in the way Teitel suggests takes time but provides larger returns. It can take just as much time to build a relationship and do research as it does to craft a proposal for a foundation where there is no fit. The return on this work is very different and can be more rewarding when the return increases–-both in resources for your organization and in personal satisfaction.

Educate boards and executive staff against the more is better thinking around proposal submission. Track time and results to make a strong case. And you can always ask your friendly program officer to share this message with those who disagree. Instead of wishing you all good luck, I wish for you a very few, exemplary proposals.

See also:

The Ultimate Insider’s Guide to Winning Foundation Grants

Image credit: maestasmatters.com

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