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Glossary
Guide to Funding Research

The Proposal Process

Proposal writing is just one step in the grantseeking process, and it is not the most important step. Far more time should be spent developing the program or project and researching and cultivating donors than on the actual preparation of a proposal.

As Jane Geever, author of The Foundation Center's Guide to Proposal Writing, states, the proposal does not stand alone. It must be part of a process of planning and of research on, outreach to, and cultivation of potential foundation and corporate donors.

How to start:

    Commit your ideas to paper.

    Thoroughly describe your program.

    Create a concept paper.

    State the goals and objectives of your program.

    Construct a timeline.

    Estimate costs for staff, materials, and equipment.

    Plan for an evaluation of your program.

    Write job descriptions for program staff.

Components of a Proposal:

    Executive Summary

    Statement of Need

    Project Description

    Budget

    Organizational Information

    Conclusion

How to assemble these various elements into a well-organized proposal is described in the Proposal Writing Short Course, which is excerpted from The Foundation Center's Guide to Proposal Writing. Here we focus on the proposal submission process.

Initial Approach

An increasing number of funders prefer brief letters of inquiry concerning the suitability of a match between your proposal and their interests before you submit a full proposal, or even instead of one. A letter of inquiry should touch on all the elements that would eventually be part of a proposal; it should be no more than two pages long, and should indicate what the next step will be (for example, that you will follow up with a phone call within two weeks). The objective of a letter of inquiry is to get the funder to invite you to submit a proposal. For more information on letters of inquiry, see our FAQs What should be included in a letter of inquiry? and Where can I find examples of letters of inquiry?

A limited number of foundations and corporations supply detailed instructions on what a proposal to them should include. If they do provide guidelines, they expect them to be followed. Some groups of funders such as regional associations of grantmakers and the National Network of Grantmakers are now creating and adopting common grant application forms that grantseekers may use when submitting proposals to them.

While it is unlikely that you will send the same exact proposal to every foundation on your list, you will need to create a "master proposal" for your project or organization that you will customize for each prospective funder.

Ground Rules for Preparing a Master Proposal

  • Keep it readable and concise. Use large, easy-to-read, dark type. Don't use fancy bindings; use paper clips and staples instead.

  • Number the pages. If the proposal is longer than ten pages (most should not be), provide a table of contents.

  • Use charts and statistics only where appropriate, since they tend to disrupt the flow of the narrative. Put footnotes on the same page, not at the end of the document.

  • Add a limited number of attachments, press releases, news clippings, resumes, etc. Keep appendices to a minimum.

Writing Style

  • Use the active rather than the passive voice.

  • Do not use jargon or acronyms unless absolutely necessary, and then provide explanations.

  • Use simple sentences; keep paragraphs short; employ headings and subheadings.

  • Write your proposal from the point of view of those who will benefit from it. Talk about their needs and how your program will help.

Application Procedures

Each funder establishes its own application deadlines. Deadlines are serious and should be respected; otherwise you might lose out on that basis alone. Most large funders have boards that meet quarterly. Some staffed foundations may have monthly deadlines. Many small or family foundations have boards that meet only once or twice a year. Some have no deadlines at all. Keep in mind that after a proposal is submitted there is often at least a period of several months before a decision is made on it. In that interim period foundation personnel are reading and evaluating all proposals received for that funding cycle. Also be aware that, once you are notified that you have been awarded a grant, there is usually a delay of several weeks before a check will be issued to your organization. Consider submitting your proposal six to nine months before your program is to be implemented. This allows you time to apply elsewhere if you are not successful.

The same proposal should not be submitted to all funders, as many have different interests, priorities, and guidelines. Your proposal must show how your project fits a funder's pattern of giving. In certain circumstances, you may be sending the same proposal to several funders but with different cover letters. In those cases, let the funders know who else is considering your proposal.

Always address your cover letter to an individual. Never start out with "Dear Sir" or "To Whom It May Concern." Verify the spelling of names, titles, and addresses. You can often get that information by using the Foundation Finder. If not, try to get the information over the phone by calling the foundation directly.

A few funders accept proposals via fax or the Internet, but these are the exceptions. Do not fax or e-mail your proposal without first ascertaining from the funder that this is acceptable.

Be sure to include all attachments requested by the funder. The most commonly requested attachments are:

  • a copy of your organization's 501(c)(3) determination letter from the IRS;

  • a copy of your organization's "not a private foundation" letter from the IRS;

  • a list of your organization's trustees and their professional affiliations;

  • a copy of your organization's budget and most recent audit;

  • a brochure describing your agency.

Useful Electronic and Print Resources on Proposal Writing

Grantproposal.com (http://www.grantproposal.com) is devoted to providing free resources for both advanced grantwriting consultants and inexperienced nonprofit staff.

The University of Massachusetts Proposal Writing & Research Development Links (http://www.umass.edu/research/ogca/proceds/dev.html)

"Where Can I Find Examples of Grant Proposals?" (/getstarted/faqs/html/propsample.html)

Geever, Jane C. The Foundation Center's Guide to Proposal Writing, 5th ed. New York: The Foundation Center, 2007.

Barbato, Joseph and Danielle S. Writing For A Good Cause: The Complete Guide to Crafting Proposals and Other Persuasive Pieces for Nonprofits. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2000.

Carlson, Mim. Winning Grants Step by Step: Support Centers of America's Complete Workbook for Planning, Developing, and Writing Successful Proposals. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1995.

Clarke, Cheryl A. Storytelling For Grantseekers: The Guide to Creative Nonprofit Fundraising. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers. 2001.

Golden, Susan L. Secrets of Successful Grantsmanship: A Guerilla Guide to Raising Money. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1997.

Miner, Lynn E., Jerry Griffith and Jeremy T. Miner. Proposal Planning and Writing (2nd ed). Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press, 1998.

Zimmerman, Lehman & Associates. Grantseeking: A Basic Step-by-Step Approach. San Francisco, CA: Zimmerman, Lehman & Associates, 1998.

For other print and electronic proposal writing resources, see our User Aid for Proposal Writers.

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