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“Thank You for Submitting Your Proposal”:
A Foundation Director Reveals What Happens Next
by Martin Teitel, 141 pp., $24.95 (Click here for quantity discount information)
If you want the flavor of Martin Teitel’s new book, imagine illusionist David Copperfield inviting you backstage to reveal how people are made to disappear or levitate. Only in Teitel’s case, revelations center on the world of foundations and the $25 billion they disperse each year in the form of grants.
Teitel, so obviously loathe to bureaucracy, is the first (and only) foundation director in America – in the 100 year history of modern foundations – to pull back the thick curtain of confidentiality to reveal how this select club of 70,000 decides which projects to fund.
Generously sharing stories from his 28 years of experience as both grantmaker and grantseeker, Teitel in his new book, “Thank You for Submitting Your Proposal” invites the reader to experience the entire funding process – from the inside out.
OF RELATED INTEREST: In How to Write Knockout Proposals, recipient of a Starred Review in Publishers Weekly, Joseph Barbato shows you how to improve your proposal dramatically and distinguish it from the multitude submitted today.
From writing letters of inquiry, to constructing full proposals, to surviving site visits, Teitel offers the perspective of someone who has read thousands of proposals and dispensed millions of dollars.
The book includes another first as well – a 41-page eye-opening section called The Grantseeker’s Reality Check. Here, Teitel distills his years of experience into a rich compendium of do’s and don’ts for proposal writers, board members, and executive directors.
- Six things you can do to help your proposal make the first cut
- Eight red flags foundations are wary of.
- Five mistakes too many applicants make.
- Five questions you can expect to be asked about your proposal
- Seven reasonably easy things you can do to improve your proposal
Whether he’s commenting on the arrogance of some in the foundation world, or sharing his own grantseeking experiences (coffee stains nearly cost him a $350,000 grant) or describing how proposals are logged in (“A very bright and well qualified young man, in the case of our office, has this particular task in his job description because – I promised to be honest with you – he has the least seniority in the organization”), Teitel is warm, engaging, and authentic.
He’s funny, too. Here’s what the author has to say about the folly of sending cookie cutter proposals:
“ Maybe once in a while this scattershot technique works. I suppose if you went to a mall looking for a ham sandwich, started at one end and went to every single store with your request, you might eventually stumble into a place that could fix you up – after having wasted the time of puzzled clerks in The Sharper Image and Talbots.”
“Thank You for Submitting Your Proposal” will have a measurable impact on the world of foundation fundraising. It should lead to better crafted proposals on the part of grantseekers. And for America’s 70,000 foundations, it might well reduce the motherlode of inappropriate requests.
Why has it taken someone in Teitel’s position so long to come forward? Perhaps no one asked – or maybe mystique has its rewards. Whatever the reason, those seeking a piece of the $25 billion foundation pie owe an enormous debt to Martin Teitel, the grantseeker’s superhero.
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About the Author
Martin Teitel is Executive Director of the Cedar Tree Foundation, a private foundation. Previously he served as Senior Fellow and Executive Director of the CS Fund, a philanthropic foundation, and also Western Field Director for a public charity, The Youth Project.
Teitel is currently on the steering committee of the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems Funders, as well as a committee of the Environmental Grantmakers Association. Previously he served on the management board of the National Network of Grantmakers, and on various committees of the Council on Foundations.
Teitel’s nonprofit experience includes working as president of the Council for Responsible Genetics, a regional director of the Council on Economic Priorities, and several positions with the American Friends Service Committee, including Director of Asia Programs, Director of Overseas Refugee Programs, Indochina Commissioner, and Laos Field Director.
He has served on numerous non-profit boards and committees, and is currently on the board of directors of the Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolonialism.
Teitel has a Ph.D. in philosophy from the Graduate School of the Union Institute, an MSW from San Diego State University, and a BA in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin (Madison). He is a field education supervisor for the Harvard Divinity School.
Teitel is married to the Rev. Mary J. Harrington and has three children. He was born in New Jersey in 1945.
Table of Contents
- Not-so-divided loyalties: Whom does the funder work for?
- Let the games begin: Letters of inquiry
- Meat and potatoes: Proposals and budgets
- Writing a wonderful proposal
- Sweaty palms: In-person meetings
- Making sausage: How foundation staff and boards decide
- Reports: What to do after you’re funded
- You really can do it
The Grantseeker’s Reality Check
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Excerpt This article is adapted from Martin Teitel’s book, “Thank You for Submitting Your Proposal”: A Foundation Director Reveals What Happens Next, ©Emerson & Church, Publishers.
reprint permission, please call 508-359-0019
Surviving In-Person Meetings with Foundations
I am a great believer in shoe-leather philanthropy. People in the granting field can learn so much more by leaving the abstract world of proposals and meeting the people who are seeking funds. And for me, anyway, meeting grantees is the most fun a grantmaker can have.
While it’s perfectly possible to receive a grant without ever meeting the funder, and many grantees would be happy not to endure the stress and possibly tricky questions emanating from an in-person conversation, there are good reasons to have that meeting.
First of all, some funders really can’t get comfortable with a new grantee or a new idea until they’ve interacted beyond the piles of paper. Basically, all you need to do in a meeting is explain yourself. And you should thank your lucky stars you have a chance to do so, instead of the funder tossing your proposal into the dreaded tall pile.
Second, there are some ideas and some pieces of nonprofit work that really have to be seen to be appreciated. Funders and grantseekers don’t always agree on which projects those might be, and we’ll get to that point a little later.
And finally, some grantmakers are required to meet people they fund, so you really won’t have a choice.
Whether the funder meeting is at your place or theirs, there are a few basics to start with – some of which might seem painfully obvious. But my long experience demonstrates that some people need to be, well, reminded.
If you want to meet with a funder, here is Rule #1: Do. Not. Ever. Call. The. Funder. At. Home. If this seems rudimentary to you, my all-time record for outrageous, manners-impaired behavior is held by the man who called me at home at 7 a.m. – on Thanksgiving morning.
He was in town, kind of bored visiting his parents I think, and wanted to know if he could come over. I admit this is rather extreme, but over the years a number of grantees have felt welcome to contact me at home, and a few have shown up on my front porch.
I’ve thought and thought about this, and I’m just not able to come up with any reason for a person to ever penetrate the professional-personal barrier uninvited.
The second painfully obvious rule is about something that happens all the time. Don’t give the funder short notice (15 minutes or even a week) that you want a meeting. Leaving aside my internal book of manners, it is simply impractical to expect a busy person to find meeting time on limited notice.
This is one that happens to me at least monthly: I get a call from someone who says he’s “in town,” and can he come by. Usually, my answer is no, even if it’s someone I want to meet. Think about it – do I want to hand over tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to someone who demonstrates that he’s not able to manage a simple calendar?
I’m going to leave the rest of the elementary rules for you to figure out for yourself, such as don’t show up without an appointment, don’t arrive late, and don’t venture to the offices of a foundation in a high-rise in New York in torn jeans and a T-shirt (none of these examples are made up). In general, what this comes down to is, make a shining impression of your organization and you’ll be just fine.
Now let’s look more closely at the dynamics of visiting funders in their offices.
It may well happen that one of the foundations you’ve applied to will contact you, asking you to come in for a meeting. The only possible answer to this, unless you’re holding a winning lottery ticket when the call arrives, is yes.
You might be slightly flustered – after all, thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars could be at stake. So here is your checklist of issues to try to raise – you don’t want to simply book the date and time, if it’s possible to stay on the phone a bit longer.
You should ask, what’s the purpose of the meeting? This might seem obvious, but finding out what the funder wants to know is vitally important. The response might be that she wants to have a general conversation about your proposal, but she might have something more specific in mind, like going over your budget, and it would be nice to be prepared.
Your second question is, who should come to the meeting? Again it might be obvious, they are calling you. But if you’re in a small organization, you might want to bring a board member or a person from your community. Or on the other end of the scale, if yours is a big group that works in a technical area or in science, you might want to bring along a staff scientist or other expert. Usually a huge delegation is a bad idea, but sometimes more than one person can strengthen your hand.
I have met with some volunteers, board chairs and community people over the years that have really impressed, and sometimes moved me. It doesn’t hurt to ask about including others, if the funder isn’t far away or if your bank account can deal with a bit of travel.
Once the meeting has been set up, confirm it a week in advance. Recently, I received an email from a grantee, who at my invitation was coming from another state. She reconfirmed the date and time, mentioned who was coming, listed the things they hoped to discuss, and politely invited us (there were two people from my foundation in the meeting) to mention any other concerns we’d like addressed.
This is perfect. Her email created the meeting’s agenda, and the grantee did a good job of maintaining control of the gathering without making me feel overpowered.
OK, so the time comes and there you are in the foundation waiting room. What is in your hand? And, no, I don’t mean a briefcase. The only correct answer is, something to hand the funder that she hasn’t seen before.
Not another proposal, unless that is the stated purpose of the meeting. And be wary of gifts – most of us in foundations feel a bit uncomfortable picturing the perp walk when we’re indicted for taking bribes. (If you are a local group that has t-shirts and caps, that might be OK, or perhaps a cookbook your organization has produced).
Especially if this is a first meeting, keep the geegaws to a minimum. What will suffice is a literature packet in a nice folder – maybe some newsletters and other publications. Please, just don’t show up empty-handed. It is poor sales behavior to do that.
In some respects this meeting is a dress rehearsal for the board meeting: in this case you’re playing the part of the staff person and the staff person is the board member, asking those probing questions.
It isn’t easy to generalize about meetings with funders because the ones I’ve been in (from both sides of the transaction) vary. But some aspects of the meeting are fairly common. You are in the funder’s offices for two reasons.
First, you want to give the foundation staff an opportunity to look you over. You want them to see that you’re competent, that you know your stuff. You put a face on the verbiage, a voice to the issue.
Second, you’re there to provide information for the staff person to use in figuring out if they want to take your proposal on – or later in the game, how they might handle your proposal in their board meeting.
When you sit down in the funder’s conference room or office, and exchange the usual pleasantries that we use to start the social engine, always begin with the same question: “Do you have some things you’d like to cover about our proposal, or would you like me to start with a few brief remarks about our work?”
There is a power dynamic here, and this question handles it. You take the initiative in framing the meeting in terms of the funder’s needs, not yours. If you talk on and on before the funder gets to ask his list of questions, you might have to walk out the door having missed a great opportunity to fill in the blanks and correct misconceptions.
Therefore, your first task is to set up the agenda in terms of the funder’s needs, because that person’s needs are what count in this meeting. If the foundation staff person doesn’t begin with questions, then you should give a presentation consisting of three things.
First, give a brief summary of your proposal, kind of a verbal LOI. There might be someone in the room who hasn’t read your proposal, and in any event you want to refresh the memory of those who may have read 12 other proposals that morning. And based on my experience, let me remind you that you must be fluent in all the details of the proposal.
Second, describe anything that is new. Explain that you’re updating the proposal since it was sent in, and offer to send this information in writing or even – please forgive me for saying this – rewrite the proposal. Unless you are meeting the day after the proposal arrived in the foundation’s offices, you should always include an update – everyone likes to feel they have the most current information.
Third, offer to discuss or clarify any points in the proposed project that the funder is interested in. You are gently working here to elicit what the funder feels is weak or controversial about your proposal. You’re looking to provide answers, but you aren’t there to hold a debate.
It isn’t advisable to ask if the funder likes or favors your proposal, or if they’re going to recommend it. When people feel pushed, they tend to push back, which is just the dynamic you want to avoid. Assume your proposal has some life for that staff person; why else would you be in their office at the moment?
Once you’ve had the meeting and said your goodbyes, go over your notes carefully. When you send your thank-you note for the meeting – which in all instances you should do – it’s also fine to recap the to-do list you took away from the meeting. So you might say, “Thanks for seeing us last Tuesday. We are going to be sending you the revised budget and a copy of our strategic plan, as we discussed, by the end of this week.”
While debates rage in the manners columns of daily newspapers, in my opinion, thank-you’s sent by email are fine.
More rarely, the funder will come to see you. It’s too bad site visits are so infrequent, because funders learn best out of our offices. When you get that call or email announcing a visit, don’t panic. Follow the suggestions above – try to pinpoint who is coming, what they want to get out of the meeting, and who in your organization they want to meet with.
Yes, do discard that stack of empty pizza boxes, but don’t stress your staff with your nervousness or make them all dress as if they’re going to a high school prom. Confirm the meeting and your expectations in advance, and once again, be ready with that packet to hand to the funder as part of your greeting.
If as is sometimes the case a meal is involved, you might be asked to suggest a local restaurant. Be prepared with a few choices, which you can describe in diplomatic terms, like, “There’s a good basic local seafood place two blocks away, and an Italian place around the corner that has white tablecloths at lunch.”
Most people who are picking up the tab appreciate having the price range flagged in advance. And speaking of the tab, I know that some of my esteemed colleagues operate with different standards than I do, but in most cases, it is always the putative funder who pays. You might offer to pick up the check if you feel that’s called for, but don’t insist.
Also, be cautious about who comes to the meal. I was once at an organization’s office in New York City and mentioned it was lunchtime. The two people in the meeting with me said great, and promptly invited all the other employees, 17 of them, to join us.
Leaving aside what that meal did to my budget, I didn’t get any actual work done during the confusing and raucous meal … to the group’s detriment.
Assuming your organization runs programs or services, most funders will want to see what they might be funding in action. Over the years, I’ve met cowboy poets, participated in street demonstrations, cooked meals for homeless people, and collated mailings with volunteers.
One of the great blessings of my work has been meeting the people who dedicate their lives to helping others, often around their kitchen tables or in shabby walk-up offices.
One big mistake grantseekers make – often because they’ve failed to do their homework to find out who is visiting them – is to mute the power and passion of their work. There’s no doubt that taking a funder into the community means you can’t control what happens. Someone may say something embarrassing. But we’re adults and we can handle the unexpected.
I know that time and again I’ve fallen in love with groups because they let me meet their community people, volunteers, or those whom they serve. If you happen to meet the rare funder who will give you more than an hour and is interested in the realities of your work, take the risk and let your program shine.
In closing, let me suggest two ideas to help you induce funders to meet with you. I regret I don’t have more.
First, make the offer to come by and meet the funder, or invite her to visit with your organization. Do this even if you don’t want to, or you don’t think the funder will accept.
A polite invitation can’t hurt, most especially in the context of acknowledging a letter from a funder that says that your Letter of Inquiry has been accepted and you’re being invited to submit a full proposal. Just make sure your invitation for a visit is clear and brief. And only send one.
The second technique that has worked with me is to illustrate what a site visit might look like. In these days of $99 color printers, you can easily produce a letter showing the smiling faces of your volunteers or the beautiful setting around your program’s field office, or the faces of the people who benefit from your group’s efforts. A few times when I have been wavering about seeing people, framing this picture in my mind has helped to tip the balance in the grantee’s favor. It can’t hurt.
While there are the occasional difficult people seeking grants, I’ve found over the years of working as a grantmaker that the people asking us for support are inspiring, enjoyable folks who in many ways are motivated by an idealism that I share.
Busy funders, including me, are often difficult to meet with, yet the overwhelming majority of grantseekers are interesting and engaging people who should put their strongest asset forward: yourselves.
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Interview with Martin Teitel
QUESTION: Why do foundations seem to be such "black boxes"?
Teitel: Many foundations seal themselves off for two reasons. For one thing, there’s little incentive to become more transparent and accountable, even though some try. But second, foundations have to somehow insulate themselves from the onslaught of fundraisers, many of whom don't do enough basic research to learn that they're wasting the funder's - and their own - time.
QUESTION: What prompted you to write a book about the inner workings of foundations?
Teitel: After nearly 40 years working for both nonprofit organizations and the foundations that fund them, I could see that the people who get foundation grants aren't necessarily the ones doing the best work. It seemed like a good idea to try to help level the playing field.
QUESTION: Are you saying that technique can trump better ideas?
Teitel: Absolutely – especially when people doing good work don’t effectively communicate what they’re doing.
QUESTION: That must mean you've unwittingly funded some bad projects now and then.
Teitel: Not at all. We’ve sometimes funded some good proposals when we could have funded better ones. Technique doesn’t bamboozle us into doing dumb things, but it may give an edge to someone with an already good project.
QUESTION: Is the insider knowledge you’re sharing in your book secret? Why hasn’t anyone written something like this before?
Teitel: There are some great books out there on raising money from foundations written by people outside the foundation community. I suspect that many of my colleagues, already overwhelmed with an avalanche of funding requests, aren’t too interested in increasing the flow.
QUESTION: Grantseeking has become such an industry ... with workshops every other week, specialized consultants, a multitude of how-to books. It all seems like a cat and mouse game now. Does it have to be this way?
Teitel: Emphatic no! If people put more care and attention into their funding efforts, especially if they tried to create a mix of different kinds of funding – rather than rely heavily on foundations – then there’d be less need for all the professional hand-holding.
QUESTION: Is it likely foundations will receive even more proposals as a result of your book?
Teitel: Perhaps. But everyone should have a fair shot at the $25 billion in grants that’s available each year. This is a big business. Why should highly paid experts and consultants have the advantage?
QUESTION: Considering the sheer number of proposals they receive, do foundations really review everything that comes in?
Teitel: All foundations open and read their mail. So there’s always rudimentary screening. But careful screening often isn’t needed, because once you open the envelope it becomes apparent the writer didn’t pay enough attention to how that foundation works. Separating the wheat from the chaff isn’t all that hard, although it does take some time.
QUESTION: What’s the single biggest mistake people applying for foundation grants make?
Teitel: Something I see all the time is proposals that put a huge amount of detail into describing a particular problem, but they don’t say nearly enough about what’s going to be done, specifically and concretely, to address that problem. Years ago I read a “peace” proposal consisting of many pages of stark detail about the effects of nuclear explosions on human beings, including two pages of melting eyeballs and burning flesh. Tucked in the end were some general statements about the need for people to pay attention to this danger. There was no hope, no vision of a world that was improved, and very little about how we might get to a better place.
QUESTION: People say getting a grant is all about who you know. Is that true?
Teitel: The power of access is greatly overrated. If I get a call from a friend asking for funding, yes, I’m likely to talk with her. But after that, I’ll pass along her call to someone on the staff to avoid any conflict of interest.
QUESTION: But if the staff knows the boss in involved, won’t they either subtly or overtly defer to you?
Teitel: I doubt it. It just isn’t that important to the granting process that I know someone with a proposal. My own mother once asked me for funding. I turned her down.
QUESTION: How important is the format of the proposal?
Teitel: Well, a proposal written on the back of a napkin might not reflect good planning. But I once funded a group whose initial pitch was on a postcard, and certainly I’m not impressed by fancy binding and shiny presentation folders. Overall, what matters is clear, concise and compelling writing.
QUESTION: What's the biggest misperception grantseekers have about foundations?
Teitel: That they don’t care. Foundation staff I know are passionate about the organizations they fund – I get buttonholed all the time by my colleagues, who want me to pay attention to groups they care about. When foundation boards turn down staff-recommended proposals, it’s often devastating to the staff who tried to get that grant made.
QUESTION: Do you personally know firsthand the sting of having a proposal rejected?
Teitel: Yes. It’s happened to me many times. And even though it feels bad to turn down a group you know deserves a grant, the funder’s angst doesn’t compare to a grantseeker’s terrible anxiety after being rejected, knowing that the people who are counting on you for their work and livelihood are going to be in jeopardy.
QUESTION: Is the phrase "approachable foundation" an oxymoron?
Teitel: There’s no doubt that the unaccountable power of foundations causes some of them to lose sight of the basics of courtesy. But in the last decade or so I’ve noticed some concerted effort on the part of foundations to treat the people who approach them better. I think this is because foundations became zealous in the 1980’s and ‘90’s about hiring more staff with real experience in nonprofits. And also some foundation board members began realizing that staff are their public face. One board member of a family foundation once told me, “You’re us more than we are!”
QUESTION: Will a person who reads “Thank You for Submitting Your Proposal” stand a much better chance of landing a grant?
Teitel: If someone reads this book and does a great job of telling their story, organizing their material, and sending it to the right funder, then yes, you bet, that person’s proposal is much more likely to rise to the top of the funder’s pile – assuming the project is worthwhile in the first place. I worked hard in writing this book to share every tip and trick that I've learned in four decades in the funding and nonprofit community. “Thank You” isn't magic, but it should give strong boost to people who are working to fund their organizations.
QUESTION: Tell me the oddest proposal you've ever received.
Teitel: “Space Cadets of America.” They wanted white jumpsuits. With epaulets.
QUESTION: Can I have a grant?
Teitel: Sure. Let’s see your proposal. In triplicate, please.
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