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Astute observers of the typical grant-making review process will notice a few simple ways to make their proposals stand out.

I've written about the 5 silly mistakes that nonprofits make (all too often) when applying for foundation grants. You’d be surprised to learn how many nonprofits fail to meet basic deadlines or conduct proper research about the foundation’s funding priorities before applying for a grant. In fact, most organizations are so disorganized, that if you simply meet the deadlines, put together competently written proposals, and pay lip-service to the foundation’s mission, your nonprofit will stand out in a world that too often can’t be bothered to do any of those things.

If you can clear that hurdle, your proposal typically faces a rather straightforward review process once it reaches the foundation.  Every foundation is different, of course, but at a typical grant-making organization with professional staff, the following steps occur:

  1. Proposal is submitted.
  2. Foundation staff review your proposal and summarize it for the board.
  3. Proposal summary is combined with summaries of other proposals into a board book.
  4. Board meets, makes funding decisions.

Astute observers of this process will notice a few things:

1. Gatekeepers matter. The actual decisionmakers—the board trustees—come last in the decision-making process, relying to a large degree on the filtered information they receive from their subordinates. You can game this process by building relationships with board trustees—a step I wholeheartedly encourage, especially with larger and more competitive foundations—but the essential takeaway is that gatekeepers matter.  Be courteous and respectful and friendly in your interactions with executive staff such as a grant administrator, and never discount their role in the process.

2. Clarity above all. The key points in your proposal should be clear and easy for a reviewer to find and summarize for the board. Write the executive summary of your proposal with this in mind.  Put yourself in the shoes of the program officer whose job is to summarize your proposal for the board book. Key points such as the amount you’re requesting, the cost of your project, its relevance to the foundation’s mission and giving priorities, and any relevant information about other funders should be included here.

3. Don’t give up too soon. There are lots of cooks in this kitchen, and even one disaffected party can scuttle your proposal, no matter the good vibes you’ve gotten from other key players. Don’t get discouraged when this happens. Instead, seek feedback and learn what you can do differently next time. With surprising frequency, this often is as simple as asking foundation staff for feedback, making some revisions, and re-submitting your proposal for the next board meeting.

There’s no question that approaching foundations for grant funding can be confusing and intimidating, and foundations themselves typically do nothing to dispel this.  Quite the contrary: they cultivate an imposing image by celebrating their larger-than-life founder, projecting a sense of rigor and professionalism in their funding decisions, and inventing labyrinthine application procedures that serve their own purposes rather than those of grant-seekers.  But to riff on Mitt Romney’s notorious quote, “foundations are people too.”  If you approach them accordingly, the results will follow.   


It’s my goal to help purpose-driven organizations achieve their fundraising goals, craft clear and compelling communications, and achieve greater influence. Please let me know if and how I can be of help to you, feel free to shoot me an email at srubush@americanphilanthropic.com, or check out our consulting services online at AmericanPhilanthropic.com and ongoing fundraising seminars throughout the year.

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