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.
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.