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Joanne Oppelt

About Joanne

Grantsmanship: What They Don't Tell You (Part 1)

Editor’s Note: This week and next, we will provide our readers with a selected chapter from Joanne Oppelt’s book, Confessions of a Successful Grants Writer, part of the In the Trenches series published by CharityChannel Press. You can read Part 2 here.

Joanne offers expert advice for new and experienced grantwriters as they seek to develop their skills as professional fund developers.


Grant writing is persuasive in nature: you are trying to persuade someone to make a decision to fund you. To influence decision-making effectively, you need to understand how funders make decisions and in what the context they make them. This information is not usually written down much less published. In this chapter, we will cover the in’s and out’s of understanding who makes the funding calls within each type of funder and how you can best impact those funding decisions.

First of all, let me tell you where I am coming from as a grants reviewer. On a foundation level, I once worked as a program officer for a local chapter of a national foundation. On a governmental level, I have reviewed grants at both the national and county level. I have never been involved in decision-making in a corporation, but the person who helped me craft my corporate informational materials was a corporate community relations officer in an international company in charge of allocating corporate donations. She has been instrumental in helping me formulate my strategy in approaching corporations for support. And it’s worked.

Foundation Perspectives

Foundations are run by Boards of Directors who carry out the founder’s mission as they interpret it. These board members are generally well-educated professionals: lawyers, bankers, accountants, corporate executives, and sometimes public officials are fairly common. Your proposal should be written at a business professional level: about twelfth grade in vocabulary and reading level. It should also look like a professional business document. Looking professional does not mean a bound presentation with a glossy cover. Looking professional means a presentation that is typewritten with plenty of white space on the page, no spelling errors and no math errors.

The document also needs to be consistent with itself: what’s described in the methodology is what’s asked for in the budget; the numbers in the proposal narrative match the numbers in the budget; the outcomes you describe relate to the issues you are trying to solve and the needs you outline. These are simple guidelines, but breaking them is a common mistake in proposals.



It is always surprising to me that almost all funders have war stories of unprofessional proposals they receive: proposals addressed to the wrong foundation, unsigned cover letters, budgets numbers that don’t add up or that differ from the proposal narrative. One foundation representative even remarked to his audience how he has received handwritten proposals. Needless to say, none of these potential grantees got far in their quest.


Make sure the goals of your proposal is in line with the funders’ goals and that all the major concepts in your proposal relate to them. For example, say that you need funding for the youth in foster care you work with so that they can present their experiences in conference settings to professionals who work with at-risk youth. Further, say you are writing to a foundation whose goal is to improve the psychological welfare of youth. You will want to phrase your proposal in terms that reflect the goal of the foundation. In other words, your goal for the project will not be to provide for transportation costs, it will be to improve the emotional and mental health of at-risk youth. Your needs statement, then, will not talk about the high cost of providing such opportunities to the youth, but the psychological benefits of abused or neglected youth telling their story. In this case, you will need to cite psychological research to substantiate your point. You may also want to cite best practices in the field regarding such presentations and the exponential impact such presentations can have. Your objectives, in turn, will address improvements in mental health and contribution to best practices and your evaluation will measure such objectives. We will talk in detail about how to make sure the different parts of your proposal relate to the funder’s objectives in Chapter 3. And we will discuss maintaining consistency throughout the proposal in Chapters 4 and 5.

You also want to understand how foundation board members think and organize information. You can do this is a variety of ways: through Foundation Directory or other summary profiles, foundation websites, annual reports, research studies, position papers, press releases and, of course, application guidelines. The more of any of these you can get and read, the better off you are. By reading literature foundations publish, you will be more able to understand and use their language, identify their issues and understand their approach to solving problems. If you’re lucky, they’ve put out research or position papers that you can use to justify your ask. In other words, you will be able to reach them where they are. You will communicate to them that you understand them, which lays the foundation for a trusting relationship. And if they feel they can trust you, your chances of funding just went up exponentially.


Practical Tip

Every profession has its own jargon and language. Although you don’t want to use jargon, you will want to use language common within the professional context your proposal addresses. You do want to come across as versant in the field.


For example, the MacArthur Foundation funds community development projects. They are particularly concerned about the current shortage of affordable rental housing. MacArthur has sponsored studies and put out research that substantiates this issue. I use their research in my housing applications. It gives me credibility to be able to back up my position with national statistics that are validated by a well-respected player in the field. Certainly, I will use this research in applications to other community development funding sources. I will especially make sure to use MacArthur’s research if I am applying to MacArthur Foundation itself or if I am applying to another foundation who partners with MacArthur. Using a foundation’s own research communicates to the foundation’s board, the funding decision makers, that I am definitely a partner that has the same interests and goals as they do. It is a big first step in the process of making that perfect match between this funder and my organization.

As far as application guidelines go–ALWAYS FOLLOW THE FUNDER’S RULES. This may sound simple, but it’s the number one rule that’s broken. If they want one page, don’t give them more. If they have a preferred format, follow it. Answer all their questions. If your program doesn’t fit in with their priorities, don’t apply. Foundation board members are a pretty small, close knit group and they talk to each other. You do not want to get the reputation that you can’t follow directions or that your organization is desperately chasing money. If you can’t or won’t follow directions, it calls into question whether you will be able to comply with contract and reporting requirements. If you’re desperately chasing money, you call into question your organization’s management and viability. Either way, you lose.



I can’t emphasis it enough: Always follow the rules of the funder.


One more thing about larger foundations: they have program officers. It is the program officer’s job to make sure that the Board has a field of good choices in which to make decisions. That means the program officer is your friend—it is in his or her best interest that you submit a good proposal. A program officer will actually help you submit a good proposal. So, if you have questions, ask the program officer. In my opinion, it is always a good idea to introduce yourself and your organization to a program officer, if the foundation accepts phone calls or e-mails. Contact them in the way they say they want to be contacted. And it is very important not to wait until the last minute to contact them. Most proposals are written just before deadline. You don’t want to wait until the last minute for two reasons: you don’t want to impose on the funders when they are at their busiest and you don’t want to present yourself or your organization as going by the seat of your pants with no strategy or planning behind you. If you do these things, you come across as unfocused and poorly managed. Remember — prior planning prevents poor performance.


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