For whom the bell-shaped curve tolls: why you must target your foundation proposals

During the years I ran charitable foundations, I learned about some of the fundraising ideas that work against success. Here’s one:

No curve with proposals

People looking for funding figure that funding proposals can be graphed in a bell-shaped curve with inadequate ones at one end and terrific ones at the other–the majority lying in the fat middle of the curve. What I learned over the years was that bell-shaped curve thinking undergirds quite a few of the proposals that fail.

Grant seekers think, “I’m tired and I’m in a rush and I hate this. So I’ll assemble a proposal that comes pretty close. Since our work is good, I’ll still have a chance.” The problem is when proposals are evaluated, there’s no nice curve with poor proposals at one end and superlative proposals at the other, with funders carefully examining the bulk of good efforts occupying the middle. Since few funders make their internal processes transparent to grant seekers, it’s understandable that the reality of proposal evaluation is misunderstood.

For many foundations, all the bad and misplaced proposals are rejected fast, usually way before anyone in authority ever sees them. Various funders give this initial screening job to assistants or sometimes to young interns.

The good don’t make the cut

But the good and even the really good proposals in the center of the assumed bell-shaped curve also get rejected frequently or for some funders, almost always. Program officers may or may not spend any time with the good proposals. Even if they are told to look at them, the look may be cursory at best.

What program staff at foundations usually focus on is distinguishing between excellent proposals and really superlative proposals. One foundation I ran had a 95% rejection rate during some busy years. So we only looked at proposals that fit perfectly and were outstanding.

You can see from this description that sending in a decent proposal or even a good one isn’t functionally different from sending in one that’s poorly done. You might say, so what? It’s just the price of paper and postage or filling out a web form, and I’m under pressure to send out lots of proposals.

Lots of proposals squander resources

When you send out scattershot proposals, you are contributing to two problems. One is the squandering of a crucial resource:you, the fundraiser for your organization. Your labor would be more effective if you produced a smaller number of really first-rate and well-targeted funding requests. From your point of view, if you are sending out forty proposals, maybe one will work. But each recipient funder sees only the one proposal you send, and s/he will quickly bounce it. The time, effort and money you spend broadcasting hopeless proposals is costing your organization extra money that you then have to raise.

Second, foundations hire staff to process proposals, track them with computer systems and talk about them on the phone. Funders build expensive processing capability to do this, paid for out of what the IRS calls the minimum payout requirement: funds meant to cover grants and the cost of making grants. As a result, there’s less money available for grant seekers, because the funders are bulging with excess infrastructure they need due to so many misdirected proposals.

Suggestions

I have two suggestions about how to address this problem.

Focus

One is to send out a small number of beautifully written, well-researched and very carefully targeted proposals. You can spend the time you might have used compiling huge “hit lists” on research to discover the much smaller number of funders who are likely to consider your request for support. That effort can include many revisions of your standard proposal so you make the most compelling case possible to each individual funder.

I’ll let you in on a funder secret. Most foundations I know receive proposals on occasion that are addressed to another funder. Often it’s a funder whose name or foundation is adjacent in the alphabet. In sending out amass mailing based on a big funder list, the wrong proposal got stuffed into the wrong envelope–or the wrong mail-merge field. It’s an understandable mistake, but often fatal to the proposal. The funder may say, if you couldn’t be bothered modifying your proposal for me, I won’t bother reading it.

Realistic production expectations

The second issue is the pressure to produce. There’s often a tension between two groups in nonprofits: spenders and raisers.

Nonprofit boards and executive directors often can’t run the programs they want because of insufficient funds. Therefore, they push the fundraisers to raise a lot of money fast with little expenditure of overhead.

Experienced grant seekers know good fundraising takes time. They know sometimes you have to start small and then build. They know you have to spend money to raise money.

But the fundraiser is rarely the person with ultimate authority. Even executive directors answer to boards. So the fundraiser has to deal with the expectations of her boss who may say, just send out more proposals. That’s what will bring in more money, like a farmer planting more seeds to get a bigger crop.

Fundraisers do indeed need to raise money or find other work. It’s that simple. But even the most successful fundraisers sometimes feel unfairly burdened with unattainable expectations.

Quantity does not equal quality

All of us have a responsibility to help boards and nonprofit managers understand that in the proposal business, quantity is not the same as quality, and that often sending fewer proposals, not more, will produce the most income over time.

I wish foundations would take more time to show grant seekers how funders work. In the absence of better transparency and accountability, the best we can do is tailor our behavior to what we have learned actually brings income. A few very well-targeted, superlative proposals are the surest route to success.

See also:

Martin Teitel’s book, The Ultimate Insider’s Guide to Winning Foundation Grants.

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