Posts Tagged ‘Martin Teitel’

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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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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Don’t make cold calls; make tepid calls instead

In our recent live interview with “Insider’s Guide to Winning Foundation Grants,” author, Marty Teitel, we asked all of you on the webinar, “How many of you have received a grant?” A surprising 30 percent had never been a grantee. I would have confidently guessed 90 percent or more of you had earned the support of a foundation.

It’s a good reminder there are many organizations still in their founding years or perhaps securing a mix of earned income and other funds that makes cultivating foundations less critical. For the rest of you aspiring to be among the 70 percent who call foundations their friends, author Marty Teitel is anxious to share his perspectives as a former foundation CEO.

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 passage below, Teitel addresses the challenge with cold calls.

Readers: Generally speaking, foundations loathe cold calls from grant seekers.

Teitel: Please listen carefully, as our menu options have changed: this is true! Whenever my kids leave the house, I’m unable to resist telling them to drive safely, even through it’s a ritualistic mantra of the painfully obvious.  Similarly, I’ve written articles and given talks admonishing grant seekers to review the rules before applying to any foundation, but I think I’ve had little effect.

Cold calls have consequences.

One is foundations hire more people to answer the phones. The salaries and fringe benefits of these functionaries are counted as charitable expenditures that could have been grants. Lazy cold callers not only diminish their chances of getting a grant, they also make it more difficult for everyone else to secure funding.

Second, people like me built elaborate moats. In my time as a funder, I was practically impossible to reach. This is because the majority of the calls that came in for me were an irredeemably total waste of my time.

Does my behavior run the risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater? Yes – I know I might have missed a call from someone with a fabulous brainstorm. I can only hope those with good ideas read the rules and got to me via the established channels.

If you nevertheless feel a need to pitch an idea to a program officer over the phone, first send an email explaining what you want to talk about and why there’s value for both parties to talk. This approach has worked with me, although since the call was preceded by a letter, it’s not really cold – more kind of tepid.

If you enjoyed our live author interview with Marty Teitel, don’t forget to register for our next interview about winning nonprofit business models with coauthor, Lester Olmstead-Rose, who is a senior strategist with La Piana Consulting.

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

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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

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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Doom and gloomers need not apply

On our CausePlanet Facebook page last week, I couldn’t help but ask if you could guess author Martin Teitel’s pithy one-word answer to my interview question, “What is the most common mistake grant seekers make when hosting a site visit?” I left you hanging over the weekend to think about it before I answered on Monday. Read carefully for his answer below—otherwise you might miss it. I’ve also included Martin’s response to his favorite interview question about compelling grant proposals.

CausePlanet: In your experience, what consistent ingredient contributes to the most compelling grant proposals?

Martin Teitel: I love this question. Great proposals say, “We’re doing this wonderful work; here’s an opportunity for you to join us in making it even better.” These sparkling proposals are invitations to share success, not threats or forecasts of doom. The reader of one of these compelling proposals becomes infected with optimism and hope. This is not Pollyannaism: thorny issues aren’t avoided, but neither are they used as a club to smash the possibility of things getting better. In the end, the funder puts the proposal down on her desk and thinks, “I want to be part of this.”

CausePlanet: What is the most common mistake grant seekers make when hosting a site visit?

Martin Teitel: Groveling.

Read the full interview and highlighted passages in our Page to Practice™ book summary of  Teitel’s new book “The Ultimate Insider’s Guide to Winning Foundation Grants.”

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

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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