Have you ever heard anyone say, “Why don’t we just write up a letter of inquiry and send it out to a bunch of foundations and see what sticks? What’s the downside?”
I can practically feel the foundation staff members cringing right now.
According to a couple of foundation representatives I spoke with, this “scattershot” approach is something that they are basically begging us to not do. Not only does it make extra work for them, it can be a waste of time and resources for the applicant. Here are some tips to help you figure out if a funder is a good fit or not before you send off that LOI:
Read the guidelines!
This is definitely a “no-duh,” but it’s easy to become complacent and skip a thorough review of the guidelines (if they exist). The most efficient place to start is the geographic area within which they fund. If your location is included, your next step is to look up their list of grantees and see if any of them are in your area. You can easily pull funder tax returns (the 990 form)--which have this information--at Guidestar.com. Many foundations say they give nationally or regionally, but they really focus on only a handful of locations. So technically you might be a fit, but in reality, if they have never funded in your area before, it is unlikely that they will do so now. This might be particularly true in a community of the size and perceived affluence of Santa Barbara.
Also check if they have restrictions on the budget size of the organization. This nearly happened at The Write Team just this week! We got wind of a new grant opportunity, got excited and shared it with our clients, and then realized that the limit on organizational budget size excluded most of our clients.
By the way, reading the guidelines before each time you apply is important, even if you apply for the grant every year and believe that you already know the guidelines well. As the years go by, it’s very possible to forget some of the finer points that could help you make your proposal more compelling or help you with the submission process. And the funder’s guidelines might change. You wouldn’t want to have missed it when the Towbes Foundation started accepting proposals via email, right? (No more worrying about staples versus paper clips!)
Determine how well your program fits their guidelines
After you determine that the foundation gives in your geographic area, dig down into the types of things they fund. Some funders are very general in their guidelines, saying they fund “education” or “youth programs.” Okay, so they fund “education” but what aspect are they really interested in?
This is another time that it helps to look at their past grantees. You may find that they generally fund GED programs for high school seniors, or retention programs for college freshmen. That means your tutoring program for kids with cancer wouldn’t be a good fit, even though technically you would fit under the “education” interest area. Unless you have been encouraged to apply by the foundation, don’t send an LOI in this case! Another example is a funder who supports only classical music programs. You won’t want to send them a request for a rock music programs for kids.
Touch base with foundation staff
It never hurts to call the foundation and ask them if your program/organization is a fit. Sometimes they will say, “Well technically your program is a fit, but we are unlikely to fund such a program at this time.” Blammo! No need to waste your time with this one. You may want to put a tickler on your calendar to try back in a year or two, but for now it’s a “no.” Conversely, you may happily find out that your program is a great fit, and the foundation person could give you helpful guidance on the best way to approach your application. I’ve also been able to find out about newly shifting priorities (like a board member’s particular interest in music therapy for disaster relief survivors) that aren’t listed in the guidelines yet when I make that call. This puts me ahead of the curve in approaching this funder.
Don’t chase the money
Sometimes non-profit staff will see a grant opportunity that loosely relates to the mission of their organization, and want to develop a new program to fit the guidelines, even though it’s not something they would have done on their own. For example, an after school program might be tempted to start offering a theatre program in order to qualify for a Santa Barbara Bowl grant. Or an HIV prevention program might think about starting an STI screening program because the health department has money for this purpose. It’s rarely a good idea to create a new program just because there is funding for it! It’s far better to plan what you want to do, then seek funding to support it. Otherwise your organization could stray from its mission.
This is a hot topic for nonprofits. Here’s a longer article that underscores why it’s essential to avoid chasing funding and allowing potential funding to drive program choices.
Make it interesting, easy to read, and brief
If, after all this, you feel like it’s a good fit, go for it! Remember to keep the reader in mind as you write, as they might be up late at night reading through dozens of letters. Make your two-page letter of inquiry easy to read, and as interesting as possible. Include stories about those you serve (see my article about storytelling in grant writing <here>). Break up long paragraphs into sections with headlines. Attach photos or newsletters when the funder allows it. Try not to be repetitive. Be clear about what you are asking for. All of this will make it easier for the reader to understand the importance of your program, and thus you will be more likely to be funded.
Do longshots ever work out?
Yes! While I try to live by these guidelines, every once in a while I’ll put in an application to a longshot funder and end up with a grant. Those times are wonderful and amazing! But, for most organizations, these times are the exception to the rule. So...find a funder that fits before you forge forward!
By Heather Stevenson of The Write Team