Meat and Potatoes: Proposals and Budgets

This is an excerpt from The Ultimate Insider's Guide to Winning Foundation Grants, by Martin Teitel. For more information about the book, click here.


Today is deadline day at the foundation. The foundation’s email account is jammed with enthusiastic messages and attachments, and a handful of organizations have actually mailed in their proposals.

Eventually, every proposal finds its way to the desk of a program officer. There she sits, mug of coffee in hand to combat the dreaded occupational disease of program officers: MEGO. The term refers to a condition caused by reading scores if not hundreds of proposals in a brief span of time: My Eyes Glaze Over.

As a proposal writer, know that your first and main job is to avoid inducing an acute case of MEGO. Your goal is to motivate that program officer to assign a code to your proposal that keeps it alive in the evaluation and screening system. At this stage, you should have no other goal.

After several decades of poring over proposals, I want to share some overall tips with you, before we drill down to specifics.

1) Present solutions, not problems. The old conventional wisdom had a proposal starting with a “problem statement.” Although many organizations are indeed trying to address serious problems, I’ve seen too many proposals that are almost all problem statement, with scant information about exactly how the applicant intends to remedy his organization’s major concerns. The key here is to inspire with a vision and impress with a credible action plan.

2) Write clearly. Unless you're seeking funding for a technical project such as scientific research and are certain the reader of the proposal will understand what you’re talking about, avoid jargon and technical terms. Similarly, use metaphor sparingly—save the purple prose for that novel chronicling your fundraising angst.

3) Use statistics like cayenne pepper: a little goes a long way. If you must go into six pages of detailed charts on some statistical trend, and the foundation’s rules permit it, put that wonky stuff into the appendix, so you don’t give the reader good cause to give up reading in the middle. Keep the words flowing: short sentences that draw the reader in are usually best.

4) Focus on what you’re already achieving and how you plan to continue. Over many years, I've learned to spot proposals that correlate with successful work. Instead of telling me that if our foundation doesn't give you money something awful will happen or that if we don’t fund you, you might cease to exist, better proposals say: “We’re doing something wonderful here, and we're going to do it with or without you. With you, it’ll happen faster and better—but it's happening nonetheless. Please join us in this excellent work.”

I once heard a panel of venture capitalists discussing how they do their work. And they said exactly the same thing. They can recognize the businesses they should invest in from the same kinds of statements in the organizations’ business plans, which function as proposals in the VC world. Don’t threaten; invite.

5) Don’t bypass the system. It often happens in the course of your research, especially with small or local foundations, that you find you know someone on the board, or someone who goes to church with that person, or has a kid on their soccer team. So you figure, I'm going to use this advantage and go right to that person, because I read in chapter 1 that board members make the funding decisions, not staff.

There are two good reasons to resist this temptation, unless you have specific and concrete information that such an approach is welcome. The first is that foundation boards pay their staff fancy money to buffer them from being hassled. Even though you're correct in assuming that you’re exceptionally articulate as well as charming, you run a serious risk of annoying just the person you hope will end up liking your work. And as for charm, the funding decision is about your organization and its work: you, the fundraiser, are only a vehicle.

The other reason not to do an end run is the risk it creates with foundation staff. I don’t actually know anyone who enjoys having a person go over his head. The board member you’re merrily chatting with at the party is my boss. It doesn’t necessarily make me feel warm inside to know I've been left out of the equation.

If you really do find yourself standing at the soccer sidelines alongside a board member whose kid is on the same team, find a casual way to let the foundation staff know you have that connection, and you’re not exploiting it. Keep the foundation staff as allies—that’s the surest route to a check.

5) Use the cut-and-paste function in your word processor, but do it skillfully. Although some foundations have application forms and some ask very, shall we say, idiosyncratic questions, in general there are only so many ways you can describe your organization and its activities. Given the convenience of word processing software, there is an understandable tendency to delay writing the proposal until a day or two before the deadline, knowing you can load an old proposal and just stitch and glue until you have something that seems to meet the requirements.

Although it’s okay to use a basic proposal for all of the variations you need to produce, be careful not to leave out transitions and connective tissue. Conversely, pay attention to repetition and redundancy. Most of us have a natural tendency to mentally fill in those pesky leaps of logic and narrative that can make the difference between a ho-hum proposal and something that compels.

About the Author

Martin Teitel has worked in the world of nonprofits for 45 years, 30 of them for grant making foundations, including a 12-year stint at CEO of the Cedar Tree Foundation in Boston. Teitel has a PhD in philosophy from the Union Institute, Cincinnati, and a Masters in Social Work from San Diego State University. He is a Field Education Supervisor for the Harvard Divinity School. Follow his blog at