Posts Tagged ‘foundation proposals’

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

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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.


I have two suggestions about how to address this problem.


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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