Rebecca Vermillion Shawver, MPA, GPC
Letters of Interest Lead to New Funding Opportunities
As a new grant writer, I was always uncertain what to include in a letter of interest (or what many of my colleagues refer to as a pre-proposal letter). With such limited space, there never seemed to be enough room to list all the information that I thought necessary to persuade the grant officers to request a full proposal from my organization. Thus after dropping each envelope into the mailbox, all I could do was hope and pray that my words would convince them that my agency was deserving of a chance to tell our full story. Sadly, more often than not, I was disappointed.
I finally came to realize that the funders had a different reason for requesting a letter of interest from me than I had for writing one. I needed to adjust my thinking and writing to address their needs – because after all, they have the money!
So if you’re new to the grant field or a seasoned development professional that simply hasn’t used letters of interest in your search for grant funds, I would like to share with you what I have learned.
What exactly is a letter of interest? A letter of interest is simply an informative and compelling document submitted to a foundation to elicit a request from them for the submission of a full proposal application. It should describe the proposed program concept and plan while being as brief as possible. To be successful, this type of letter must be concise. It must explain the proposed program, offer compelling statistical evidence of need, and list anticipated outcomes to be achieved. In other words, a letter of interest should be a summary of the entire proposal -- all wrapped up in a small package (minus the bow). It should persuade the reader that they need to know more about your program and its goals.
How long should the letter be? Typically, letters of interest should be no more than two or three pages in length. They should be single spaced and be written as a formal business document. However, don’t be afraid to use some creativity in highlighting key points. For example, bold, initialized, and underlined text can be used to bring special attention to essential information (such as your need statement, goals, measurable outcomes, program methodology, and sustainability). Never forget that the sole purpose of such letters is to pique the interest of the funder. Therefore, your job is to create an attractively designed document that is easy to read and one that draws the reader’s attention to the most important information.
How should the letter be formatted? There are several distinct sections to a complete letter of interest. I have found that by the following outline, I don’t forget to include key information.
Introduce your agency to the reader. Provide a very short description that includes its mission, the types of programs you provide, and the number and type of clients that you serve. In just a few sentences, highlight mutual areas of interest that your agency and the funder share. Tell your reader something unique about your agency that makes it stand out from the crowd. You want them to remember your agency as unique and better qualified than other similar agencies in your community.
2nd Paragraph – Program Description & Need
Provide a general description of your proposed program (referring to it by name several times). Describe your community’s need for the program and the statistical data on which your agency is basing its needs. Make it compelling. Never forget that foundations receive hundreds of letters of interest every year. Tell them what makes your community’s need more compelling than that of others. After you write this section, have a colleague read it over carefully. Ask them if they understand the urgency of your clients’ needs. If they don’t, rewrite this paragraph until they do.
3rd Paragraph – Goals and Objectives
State the overall goal of your program. Describe the desired impact that it will have upon the community and its participants. List the primary measurable program outcomes. Use bullet points for clarity if appropriate. Remember that you should always avoid using technical jargon because more than likely it will simply confuse the foundation’s readers. So describe your goals and objectives in compelling, everyday terms that depict the human impact that your program will have. For example, if women with children will be provided job training in high-demand, high-paying profession, ensure that you tell your readers how many mothers will be able to financially provide a better life for their children.
4th Paragraph – Past Success
If your letter focuses upon an ongoing program, be sure that you highlight its past success. For example, tell your reader how many participants the program has served and the number of them that achieved significant accomplishments over the past five years. If it’s a new program for your agency, be sure to share how it fits within your agency’s mission and is complementary to your other program efforts. Additionally, share your programmatic success with other programs that you provide for the same or similar participant base.
5th Paragraph – Collaborative Partnerships (Internal and External)
Be sure to describe the holistic collaboration plan you have designed to address multiple challenges faced by your clientele. Share with the foundation what external partnerships will work to ensure the success of your program. For example, if you propose a job placement program that will work in conjunction with a local food pantry to provide premium benefits or a childcare provider that will provide subsidized services for newly placed workers, tell your readers this. Additionally, discuss the internal agency collaborative partnerships that your co-workers will provide. For example, if a different department within your agency provides family counseling and these services will be provided for program participants, describe how referrals will be made. Lastly, don’t forget to list and estimated value of these in-kind services and any cash match that partnering agencies have committed to the program.
6th Paragraph – Mutual Areas of Interest & Amount of Requested Funds
Conclude your letter with a focus upon your mutual funding interests. Be sure that you show a clear correlation between the proposed program and the “areas of interest” published by the funding source. Use some of their key words when describing the emphasis of your program, but don’t simply “cut & paste” words from their website or informational materials. Tell them in your own words about your shared goals and the amount of money that you hope to receive.
Closing Paragraph – Thank You and Contact Information
Thank the readers for their time and consideration of your request. Provide the appropriate contact information (phone number, fax, and email address). Lastly, ensure that the support letter is signed by an agency representative that has the authority to commit its resources and personnel to the proposed project.
What else should you know about letters of interest? There are six lessons that I have learned over the past twenty years. To be most successful when submitting letters of interest, it will be important to remember the following:
Lesson #1 - Funders and applicants often view the purpose of a letter of interest quite differently. Funders want to know how your agency can help it further its own funding priorities and goals. However, applicants often times forget this important motivational factor. They become so eager to persuade a funder to “buy” their program idea that they forget about the funder’s stated focus areas. Don’t make this mistake. Submitting a letter for a program that is clearly outside the funder’s area of interest is a waste of your time and will not endear you to the foundation.
Lesson #2 - Most of my colleagues aren’t interested in funding opportunities that first require the submission of a letter of interest. Over the years, I have found that many of my colleagues only solicit grant contracts from foundations that they have long-term, ongoing relationships with (and from government agencies of course). Seldom do they seek to establish relationships with other regional or national foundations because they fear that there is too much competition for the available funds. That’s when I realized that if most of my colleagues weren’t bothering to submit letters of interest, than my agency and I would have far less competition that I originally thought.
Lesson #3 -Writing a convincing and compelling letter of interest is much more difficult that writing a twenty page proposal. With so little space, each and every one of your words must have a purpose. There is no room for frivolity when one has only two or three pages to pique the interest of foundation staff and board members. You will need to use your space effectively.
Lesson #4 -To learn what funders want in pre-proposal letters, one should ask. Only by asking can one learn how to improve letters for future competitions. Never forget that foundation staff ant to award grant contracts. That’s their sole purpose for existing. Thus, they are typically quite eager to tell you how to improve your chances of getting funded.
Lesson #5 - One must tell the complete “story.” While there are no hard and fast rules about the order in which you should present program and organizational information in a letter of interest, the “story” that you tell must be complete. Don’t leave your readers wondering why you didn’t share some key detail of your program plan.
Lesson #6 - Only those that submit a letter of interest will ever be invited to submit a full application packet. As Dale Carnegie once said, “The person who gets the farthest is generally the one who is willing to do and dare.” Remember, submitting letters of interest just might lead to new funding opportunities. But if you don’t submit them, I can guarantee that you won’t get invited to compete for the funds.
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