Posts Tagged ‘grant seeking’

An insider’s response to “The Ultimate Insider’s Guide to Winning Foundation Grants”

Foundation grants are a key part of the revenue mix for many nonprofit organizations. Even though foundation dollars are only 14% of the total mix of charitable dollars (recent figures from Giving USA), they are important to organizations for a variety of reasons. However, the way foundation grants are made is often a mystery.

The Page to Practice™ summary of Martin Teitel’s The Ultimate Insider’s Guide to Winning Foundation Grants provides great advice and insight into the foundation process. As a former program officer, I spent a lot of time nodding my head to many of his points. The CausePlanet team then asked me to respond to Teitel’s insights. I was particularly interested in two topics he covered and wanted to add my thoughts and experience to his. They include:

the relationship between an executive director/development officer and the program staff at foundations

the letter or inquiry and grant proposal.

Foundation relationships

The relationship between the nonprofit organization and foundation staff is complicated, not only due to the unequal power dynamic, but also because of the complicated internal processes at foundations. There is a balancing role for the program officer, who in some senses works for both the applicant and the foundation board. The program officer is responsible for representing the nonprofit organization, researching the organization, creating a deep understanding of the work and knowing the systems within which the programs take place.

As Teitel notes, the program officer is your voice in the decision meeting. Certainly be clear about the information you want to share, but also listen to the advice of the program officer to understand the nuances of funder guidelines. The program officer hears the internal discussions in board meetings and can represent you well only if you provide the information he/she needs, not just what you want to share. Developing a good relationship with your program officer is helpful, but that relationship also has limits. The program officer is not your best friend or a friend that owes you something, but a friend in terms of caring about your work and maintaining a professional distance. Just as you balance the needs of your constituents and your board, so do program officers. Don’t expect special favors or think your friendship will provide advantages. Be kind, competent and courteous and expect the same from the program officer.

The written word

Many foundations are moving their grant applications online, but you will still be communicating in the written, if not printed, word for your letters and proposals. Teitel offers good advice about what to include and acknowledges that writing a good letter or proposal is hard. One thing that cannot be emphasized enough is more words do not equal more money (or understanding). Being more thoughtful and deliberate about what you include, instead of just adding a lot more information, is important to remember. Be certain and concise about the most important points and then synthesize and summarize. The program officer needs to know your programs are based in research, but he/she doesn’t need a lengthy history of your research development. Sharing your range of evaluation tools is more helpful than outlining each step in the evaluation process and how you collect information.

Focus your writing on the work the organization needs to do, how you will do it and what the results are from those actions. Period. Teitel also mentions not parroting the foundation’s language, which is great advice. The space spent elaborating on how your organization fits priority areas is space that could be better used talking about results. The foundation board is the final arbiter of whether or not you fit its guidelines, and your paragraph mimicking its wording will not convince the board. Often the grant write really wants the organization to fit the foundation’s guidelines and makes vague statements or untrue assumptions, which do much more damage than good. Share the best information about your organization and issue, and the alignment between funder priorities and the organization’s work will be clear.

Teitel’s advice and information is good, but remember all foundations are somewhat different. There is a saying, “If you know one foundation, you know one foundation.” His book provides solid background, but be sure to ground your work in your own experience and research.

See also:

The Ultimate Insider’s Guide to Winning Foundation Grants

Storytelling for Grantseekers

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No snoring allowed: Win grants with surprises and heroes

Did you know that 70 percent of what we learn is conveyed through stories? Why should it be any different when we’re trying to capture the hearts and minds of those who work in foundations?

For some reason, many of us who write grant proposals take on the project as if it promises all the anxiety of a tooth extraction.

Instead, we should be asking ourselves, “How can I build a story around my cause and draw in my reader so s/he feels involved?” If you’ve ever heard the saying, “Garbage in, garbage out,” then you know your approach to writing a grant will have everything to do with how it’s interpreted by a funder.

Storytelling for Grantseekers author, Cheryl Clarke, not only has been writing successful grants for more than 20 years, she relishes the job. We’re featuring her book at CausePlanet and hope you share our enthusiasm for this topic. Join me in learning what her readers are surprised about and the most important piece of the proposal.

CausePlanet: What advice in your book do you suspect your readers will find most surprising?

Clarke: Hmmm…another excellent question. I think many readers are surprised to even think a grant proposal can be thought of and constructed as a story. On a more micro level, I’ve heard from several readers that they are surprised by my use of section heads, which are analogous to chapter titles. I suggest grant writers consider using more descriptive and persuasive language when writing section headings. For example, while “History and Mission of the XZY Symphony” is certainly serviceable, it is much more compelling to say, “20 Years of Musical Excellence: XYZ Symphony’s History and Mission.” With this section heading, the writer is conveying both a key piece of information (the fact that the symphony has been around for 20 years) and also that the symphony delivers musical excellence (which helps establish the symphony’s credibility).

CausePlanet: What is the most important piece of the proposal in a grant and does it involve a story strategy?

Clarke: The most critical component in a proposal is the need or problem statement. A potential funder must understand what the need or problem is in order to entertain funding a nonprofit agency’s response to the need or problem. A grant writer cannot assume the funder knows the need. Therefore, it must be fully explained and documented through the use of data and statistics. The story strategy most certainly applies to this section of a proposal for it is here in the need or problem statement where the grant writer shows conflict and builds tension. Conflict is demonstrated and tension is built when the grant writer portrays how the world, environment or situation looks today with the need unmet and how a defined population is not being served. Hero agencies exist to address unmet needs.

Clarke’s storytelling techniques apply to all sorts of fundraising materials besides grant proposals. Consider Clarke’s first answer–How effective are you with section headers in your copy? Are they snoresville or do they capture the reader? In her second answer, she stresses building tension and conflict so you can demonstrate how your cause resolves it. What are some ways you can build tension and resolve it in your problem statement?

See also:

Storytelling for Grantseekers
Winning Foundation Grants
The Foundation
Mapping the World of American Philanthropy

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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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Ecology of grant seeking: Are you the lion or the house cat?

In our Page to Practice™ summary of “Winning Foundation Grants” by Martin Teitel, we promised you some excerpts of Part Four: “Administering the truth-detector test to America’s charitable foundations.” Teitel offers his best and most truthful answers to some of the questions his readers wanted to know.  In the passages below, Teitel addresses scope and summary statements in the grant proposal process.

Readers: “The chance of a local nonprofit securing funding from a major foundation is slim to none.”

Teitel: True, and a good thing this is. In the ecology of grant seekers and grant makers, appropriateness of scale matters. This is why house cats don’t run down wildebeests on the Serengeti—lions do that job; house cats chase mice. I don’t see much downside to the question of scale. Local funders know their communities, the players and the problems and the strategies that work in their areas—they’re the ones best equipped to help local groups. Even so, national foundations I worked for regularly received inquiries and proposals from locally focused nonprofits. Such mismatches waste resources. These groups would often claim their work was potentially national in scope because someone could replicate it (they planned to write a report and post it on the Web, after all). But just as the photos I snapped in Melbourne don’t make me an Australian, a posted report doesn’t make the project national or global. A national strategy is just that – a strategy for creating change that occurs at a scale and scope you can explain in detail. In thirty-five years as a funder, I never once saw the claim of being a model work out. Everyone is a model for the rest of the world, just as my kids are model children.

Readers: “With the mountain of proposals foundations receive, if the summary doesn’t immediately capture attention, your proposal is doomed.

Teitel: True. If you’re in a bookstore, do you buy a book without looking at the blurb on the back? If you’re on Amazon, don’t you usually scan the reviews? It’s not realistic to think that foundation staff diligently read every word of every submission. So although obsessiveness is usually a hindrance in life, it may not be possible to over-fixate about the quality of your summary. That’s what dictates whether your proposal itself will be read or not.

For more perspectives on grant seeking and Teitel’s book, watch for our second installment of administering the truth-detector test in our Page to Practice™ blog next week. You can also read Cindy Willard’s response to Teitel’s book . For Teitel’s book, visit www.emersonandchurch.com

See also:

The Foundation: A Great American Secret; How Private Wealth is Changing the World
Leap of Reason: Managing to Outcomes in an Era of Scarcity
Level Best: How Small and Grassroots Nonprofits Can Tackle Evaluation and Talk Results

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Foundation relationships: neighbors, not friends

Rarely do I come across a book where the author, who’s been on the inside of a foundation, is sharing the grant maker’s perspective like Martin Teitel does. His sense of humor and quick wit make The Ultimate Insider’s Guide to Winning Foundation Grants a fast and informative read. New and seasoned nonprofit leaders alike will find the author’s insights immensely practical.

This book contains insider information no one before has revealed and Teitel does it with complete transparency. Teitel wrote this book with the goal of leveling the playing field. Enjoy this interview excerpt with Teitel about the best partnerships he’s observed and the single most important idea he wants you to take away from his book.

CausePlanet: Will you characterize the best grantor/grantee relationships you’ve been part of or have observed?

Martin Teitel: This might be where I’m supposed to say “partnership,” but that’s not true. A foundation is making a largely unaccountable, barely transparent decision according to its own standards. I can’t see that as leading to a real partnership. So I’d say the best–meaning the healthiest and most successful relationships between grant seekers and makers–are frank and business-like. I think of grantees not as friends, but more like neighbors. My neighbors and I have clear boundaries, we try to keep everything pleasant and we don’t look to neighborly interactions for deep personal gratification. I choose my friends but I don’t choose my neighbors, nor the people I work with.

CausePlanet: What is the single most important idea you want readers to take away?

Martin Teitel: Foundation funding has to be put in its place. When foundation grants are a limited portion of a diverse mix that supports your work, your organization will be more independent and more stable. Far too often I see hard-pressed staffers casting about wildly in the foundation world after they’ve done an especially hard-nosed cash flow projection, wasting time trying for funds that could only arrive when it’s too late. They could have been using that energy to build support with smaller but faster and more reliable increments from other sources.

Read more author interview excerpts in next week’s post or insider highlights about winning grants in this month’s Page to Practice™ feature of Winning Foundation Grants by Martin Teitel.

See also:

The Foundation: A Great American Secret; How Private Wealth is Changing the World

Leap of Reason: Managing to Outcomes in an Era of Scarcity

Level Best: How Small and Grassroots Nonprofits Can Tackle Evaluation and Talk Results

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The grant proposal: one document – several audiences

No matter how sophisticated your grant seeking process is or your foundation relationships are, you seldomly have the chance to ask program officers or foundation board members to tell it like it is. And if they do, how often will the answer be filtered for their own purposes? I asked former foundation CEO and featured author, Martin Teitel, about the proposal screening process.

CausePlanet: What would grant seekers find most surprising about how their proposals are handled once submitted?

Martin Teitel: It’s often the case that incoming proposals are moved up the staff hierarchy, from bottom to top. So the people who are most distant from actual decision-making do the greatest amount of screening. Picture the process as funnel-shaped: proposals are rejected, in many cases, at each level as they move along. This fact is one of the reasons writing proposals is so difficult: you have to entice the first readers, so you can stand out from the throng. But the same document then needs to later impress a steely-eyed program officer who will push hard against the details. And the proposal might eventually have to wow a foundation board. One document – several distinct audiences. Writers of successful proposals should give themselves great big pats on the back for making it through this thicket. And by the same token, people who worked hard for a long time, only to have their proposal rejected by a form letter, should try to not take it personally, because getting through the proposal mill is a thorny combination of chance and arcane skill.

You can read the complete interview in our Page to Practice summary feature of “The Ultimate Insider’s Guide to Winning Foundation Grants” by former foundation CEO Martin Teitel this week at CausePlanet. Or, you can learn more about this book and others at www.emersonandchurch.com.

CausePlanet subscribers: Don’t forget to register for the author interview on Wednesday, August 29 at 11 a.m. CST.

See also:

The Foundation: A Great American Secret; How Private Wealth is Changing the World

Leap of Reason: Managing to Outcomes in an Era of Scarcity

Level Best: How Small and Grassroots Nonprofits  Can Tackle Evaluation and Talk Results

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