Do Write a Grant Proposal That Gets Noticed

Source: Minnesota Council on Foundations 10/25/2012

By Susan Stehling

      Brad Kruse

Recently Brad Kruse, program director, Hugh J. Andersen Foundation/SRI, used a publishing metaphor to describe the process of getting a grant proposal funded. He said, "A foundation is a little like a publisher. There are a lot of great manuscripts, but they don't all make it to books.''

Yes, every grant proposal has some merit, but they can't all be funded. What can nonprofits do to increase the odds of receiving foundation funding? Here are some grantseeking "dos" to make you more successful in the competition for grant dollars.

Research, Research, Research

The most important step in the grantseeking process is research. Investing time up front in identifying viable prospects will definitely save you time in the long run.

Determine how your organization fits into the bigger community picture, and hone in on funding sources that clearly fit your mission, geography, beneficiaries and more. Foundations and corporate giving programs "“ like the nonprofits they support "“ have unique histories, missions and priorities that determine what, where and whom they fund.


  Tom Springer

Writing a proposal and sending it to foundations that don't fund work like yours is a waste of your time. Asking grantmakers to read it is a waste of their time. Approaching the right funders is much more important than approaching the most or the biggest funders.

"Don't limit your search to the top ten largest foundations," advises Tom Springer, project manager, W.K. Kellogg Foundation. "The best fit and the least competition for dollars may be through a local community foundation."

Search Grantmaker Databases

GuideStar ( and Foundation Finder ( are easy-to-use online sources of information on grantmakers. Both offer free basic access to contact information, fiscal data and I.R.S. Form 990s for foundations throughout the U.S. If you require a higher level of detail on a larger number of funders and enhanced search capabilities, GuideStar and The Foundation Center also offer several levels of subscription-based services.

Minnesota Grantmakers Online (MGO), recently upgraded by the Minnesota Council on Foundations (MCF), is also available by subscription. MGO is the largest searchable database of grantmakers and grants specific to Minnesota. Using MGO makes it easy to search for information on more than 1,400 Minnesota foundations and corporate giving programs, 150,000 past grants, 20,000 nonprofits, current giving guidelines, deadlines, decision-maker contact information and more.

"MGO gives me all the funder details I'm looking for in one place and confirms that the funders I approach are the right ones," says Mary Beth Schleif, fund development coordinator at La Oportunidad, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that champions the development of Latino individuals and families. "When I'm doing research, I use MGO first "“ before Google or foundation web sites. If there's information to be found, it's usually on MGO."

Once you've identified foundations that may be a good match with your organization, study their websites for organization details, current grant guidelines and deadlines. If you've applied for funding from a foundation before, don't assume the guidelines or deadlines are the same as they were the last time.

Then return to an online search tool for a deeper dive into the wealth of information available on foundation areas of interest, geographic focus, type of support provided and past beneficiaries of funding. For example, if you are a nonprofit in Greater Minnesota seeking grants to provide temporary shelter for the homeless, you can search MGO on the area of interest "housing/shelter" plus the geographic focus "Greater Minnesota" plus the beneficiary "homeless."

Consider Your Angle

Think of your organization's work from as many angles as possible. If you are an arts organization that teaches African dance in urban schools, you might use MGO to research funders who have made grants in the more than 75 arts subcategories, such as: choreography; cultural/ethnic awareness; dance; equal opportunity and access; folk arts/traditional arts; music "“ other; or public education, public awareness. And, don't forget to check the many education subcategories, including: elementary/secondary education (K-12) and primary/elementary school.


     Joan Oswald

Engage in a Conversation

Unless a grantmaker's website specifies that you should not make a preliminary contact, email or call the prospect and engage in a conversation to determine if your project might be a funding fit. An early and personal exchange about the viability of your project will save you both time in the long run, and it will set the stage for building a longer-term relationship.

"We actually require a phone call from every nonprofit before they apply for funding," says Joan Oswald, donor relations and grants, Miller-Dwan Foundation. "That way we can make sure they're a good fit before they spend too much time and ensure that they apply to the right fund."

Practice your elevator speech before you call. You should be able to state your case succinctly, demonstrate the need for your organization or program, cite outcomes, show you've read the funder's guidelines and verbalize a connection between the guidelines and the nonprofit's mission.

Know Each Grantmaker

Realize that foundations vary widely in size, dollars granted, areas funded and ability to respond to grantseeker inquiries. Most of Minnesota's foundations are small family foundations without paid staff and with giving directed exclusively by the founder or the founder's family. Other family foundations, such as The McKnight Foundation, are among our state's largest.

Corporate foundations are created and funded by companies as separate legal entities, while corporate giving programs are under corporate control. Many corporations maintain both, and they might have different funding guidelines, deadlines and geographies.

For example, Target Foundation funds arts and human services in the Twin Cities seven-county metro area, home of its corporate headquarters. Target's corporate giving program focuses on funding cultural experiences for students and early childhood reading programs in communities where it has stores.

Community foundations are publicly supported organizations operated by and for a specific community, population or geographic region, so the location of a program or the specifics of who it serves may be the most important variables when applying there.

"It's nice to be a small community foundation in a small town," says Oswald. "It really allows us to be very responsive." Miller-Dwan Foundation, located in Duluth, funds organizations that address community health concerns in the region.

Grantmakers often say, "When you know one foundation, you know one foundation." Philanthropy is voluntary charitable giving by independent entities, so it's not surprising that the differences among grantmakers are sometimes more prevalent than the similarities. Don't make assumptions and pay attention to each specific requirement of each grantmaking organization. Do research carefully to determine if, when and how it makes sense for your organization to apply.

Provide Everything Asked For

Most funders ask for similar types of information. But "“ like publishers "“ they require unique formats and have specific deadlines. Some applications contain a list of questions, others ask for a narrative or the story of a project. Some allow or require that you complete an online grant application; others request multiple copies of a paper form.

Ultimately, most applications are comprised of a summary, statement of need, project description, budget and organizational information. But, in every case, it is important to read and understand the specific guidelines, and to make sure your proposal meets all criteria. Provide everything that is asked for by the application deadline, and ensure it is written clearly and concisely.

"It's irritating to have to ask the fundamental purpose of the project even after having read the proposal," says a staff member of a local family foundation.

Write Clearly

Good writing takes time, so don't rush it. What you first put on paper is likely far from a final draft. "Nonprofit staff are very clear about their work, but sometimes they are less clear about how best to express that work to an outsider," says Lea M. Johnson, principal at LMJ Solutions, and a previous family foundation program officer and
development professional.

"The pertinent information in a proposal should really jump off the page," Johnson says.

Whether you're a full-time grantwriter or fund development is just one piece of your job, have others who aren't overly familiar with your work read your grant proposals. Ask them what they don't understand and improve it. This extra step should help you hone and strengthen your writing, catch typos and easily avoid common pet peeves of program officers.

"It's tough for grantseekers to realize that the people reviewing the proposals are not experts on the subject," says Oswald. "You're the expert, so pretend we don't know anything about your work."

Take advantage of the many online resources and classes with specifics on how to write a notable grant proposal. At, Writing a Successful Grant Proposal provides an excellent overview of the key proposal components and includes tips on presenting your case effectively.


        Kris Kewitch

Keep Your Organization Strong

Your most important first and last step is to ensure your organization warrants notice when you do apply for funding. Every nonprofit should be addressing important community needs and be well managed, financially and programmatically.

One way for nonprofits to demonstrate accountability to funders is to meet the Accountability Standards of the Charities Review Council. Organizations that have the Meets Standards seal are demonstrating their trustworthiness to donors. Kris Kewitsch, new executive director at Charities Review Council and former Target Foundation grantmaker, says she used Charities Review Council's reports on nonprofits whenever they were available.

"At Target, I used to get information beyond what was found in grant applications, especially on organizations I was less familiar with," says Kewitsch. "The seal means others have vetted an organization and found it to be accountable and transparent, something that funders are also very interested in."

Use the tips and resources offered here to write a nonprofit "best seller" "“ a grant proposal that gets noticed.

Avoid Pet Peeves of Program Officers

  • Submit your proposal on time.
  • Provide everything requested in the specified format.
  • Ensure the name of the grantmaker is correct and spelled correctly throughout the application "“ especially if you're reusing text that you've previously submitted to another funder.
  • Use page numbers.
  • If a grantmaker has assigned a number or other code to identify your proposal, use it.
  • If you copy two-sided documents, ensure your copy also has two sides.      
  • Ensure budget numbers add up.
  • If you use percentages, also  include the corresponding numbers, so readers don't have to  run calculations.

Write a Winning Grant Proposal with  MCF Resources:

Categories: Development,Grantseeking,MCF News,MCF Research,News,Program Officers
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