The first step you should take in deciding whether to apply for a private grant is to take a look at the corporation’s or foundation’s annual report or the Form 990 report that is filed with the IRS. Foundation reports usually give lists of grants made during the past year and serve as a guide to the type of activity they like to support.
The cliché “it’s not what you know, but who you know” applies to private grants. Most private grantmakers say the best way to contact a foundation or corporation about funding is through a mutual acquaintance. Unlike federal government officials, who must be careful not to appear to be playing favorites, private grantmakers prefer to keep their contacts limited to persons or organizations they know, or at least groups with which a mutual contact is familiar. Foundations have established procedures for grant review and those whose job it is to review grants will probably not be happy if you go over their head or around their authority.
Avoid slick and sloppy pitches, mass mailings or boilerplates, according to Tad Asbury, vice president and executive director, Marriott Foundation for People with Disabilities.
“I think (the grant process) is a whole lot more than just money; it’s about relationships,” the Grant Advisors say. “Look for relationships that will last a long time.”
The First Step is a Letter of Inquiry
If you do not have this type of personal contact, your first step will be a letter of inquiry. Letters of inquiry are often the first contact an applicant has with a private grantmaker; yet corporate and foundation representatives agree that not enough care is given to the writing of this document. Grantmakers tell us it is important the initial letter be as strong as possible.
Ideally, the letter should demonstrate both your expertise in an area and your ability to administer a grant. A letter should be the product of a team approach, with the original draft being prepared by a program expert and revised by your grant administrator.
Your project title should match the funding title that appears in the organization’s annual report. The letter should be short (one page, if possible), but comprehensive enough to include the following:
- A brief statement of the proposal.
- A demonstration of the relevance of your project to the grantmaker’s organization.
- The total sum needed, which should include other sources of income for the project.
- The specific results you expect.
Five Important Components of the Application
- Be clear. Make sure your objective is clear and specific. It is not enough to say you want to fight poverty or provide job training for high school dropouts. You must provide more specific information about your program goals and how you plan to meet them. Most grantmakers say they do not want to waste time with applicants who are simply shopping for funds, without a clear idea of what they are going to do, how they are going to do it and how it ties in with the funding organization. A grantmaker must be able to measure what you have done with your grant to determine whether the idea is one it should fund in the future and be able to justify to the board of directors, chairman or others if something goes wrong.
- Make connections. Make sure the application shows how your program ties in with the grantmaker’s priorities. Failing to do so is one of the more common mistakes in both federal and private grant applications. With the increasing number of proposals received by all types of private grantmakers, they are becoming more and more critical of applications that fall outside of their funding priorities. If possible, your application should show how your activities present an innovative approach in the grantmaker’s field. Don’t stretch your proposal to fit the funder’s mission. Talking to program officials and reviewing application kits is one way to discover priorities.
- Think collaboration. Be willing to combine your efforts with other groups. In the past, when federal funds were flowing, many groups tended to worry about their own turf, making cooperation difficult at best. Now, with funding tight, private grantmakers are looking for applications that can give them more bang for the buck, helping several organizations working together for a common goal. There are several examples of this. Colleges and universities can often act as focal points for a relationship between nonprofits and local governments. In particular, educational institutions often have office space, materials and manpower that smaller nonprofits do not.
- Multiple funding streams. Develop other types of support besides grants. Grantmakers are trying to spread their awards, act as catalysts for other grantmakers and support programs that will continue after its support ends. Suggest ways your project will cut costs, and therefore require smaller grants, enabling funds to go further. Some tested methods include in-kind contributions, “sweat equity” (beneficiaries of a program contribute their time to make it work) and loans.
- You should be able to show you can make it on your own once the grant ends. Therefore, requests for seed money, rather than operating expenses or capital projects, are more likely to receive consideration, even if other uses are permissible.
- Professional grant application. This does not necessarily mean you should hire a professional to prepare the application. Some smaller foundations object to the use of outside grant consultants and to paying them via a portion of an awarded grant. However, regardless of who prepares the grant application, he or she should be capable of producing an accurate and concise document, incorporating the points made above.
Two of the most important aspects of the application are: (1) the summary — often it is the only section read; and (2) the costs — grantmakers want to know exactly what they are being asked for, and how much it’s going to cost. Therefore, be as specific as possible in describing what you are asking for and the project’s cost.
“Foundations want to see scalable projects demonstrating an overall passion for the goal,” the Grant Advisors say. “Originality is a key to catching a private foundation’s interest as well. If your project sets your group apart from others, a foundation will take notice and seriously look into specific elements of the project, greatly increasing its chance for funding.”