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Rebecca Vermillion Shawver, MPA, GPC

About Rebecca

What Makes a Winning Foundation Proposal?

I recently ran across an interesting video that was posted by The Chronicle of Philanthropy. It featured short summary statements from five foundation executives about what makes a winning foundation proposal. The video was taken at the Council on Foundation’s annual conference held earlier this summer. The advice that these professional grant-makers offered is key to any grant writer’s success.

Below I have combined their wisdom and advice with my own personal experiences to provide a checklist that will surely help you (and me) to increase the likelihood that our future foundation proposals are winners. So without spending a dime of your travel funds to attend a conference, let’s explore the components of successful foundation proposals.

Write with Clarity—Don’t Use Complicated Language in Your Foundation Proposal

It has been my experience that many grant writers believe that they must impress reviewers with complicated language. This is simply not true. Foundation reviewers (like most other reviewers) want straight forward, easy to understand language that clearly communicates what you are trying to say.

My father used to call such words (used mostly to impress others with one’s advanced education or expertise) “two-bit words.” Then, he would remind me that such words not only frustrate listeners unfamiliar with them, but can also indicate that the user thinks more highly of themselves than they do the audience. Not a good way to start any relationship.

At the Council on Foundations’ annual conference, Kevin Murphy from the Berks County Community Foundation spoke about the importance of clarity. He went one step further in sharing that foundation staff members don’t “weigh” proposals against each other. They look at them as individual applications.

His comments confirm what I already know from years of experience – each of us is really only in competition with ourselves for the first round of cuts. So we need to make certain that our applications are clear, concise, and easily understandable. After all, none of us wants to think that we lost to ourselves.

Make Friends—Develop a Good Relationship with Your Potential Foundation Partners

As we all know (and Trista Harris of Minnesota Council on Foundations reminded us), developing good relationships with our current and potential foundation partners is key to acquiring a grant award.

How do we do that? First, we don’t waste their time. Before writing and submitting a request to any foundation, make certain that your program needs are a good fit to the foundation’s stated goals, mission, and guidelines. Don’t try to force a square peg into a round hole – the mismatch will be obvious to everyone. If your program doesn’t fit, don’t submit. Instead, look for a different foundation giving program that better matches your needs.

I’ve know quite a few grant writers that send out “blast” proposals. That’s the term I use for generic proposals that are submitted to just about every foundation that’s listed in any one community. I liken this type of approach to randomly shooting into the air and hoping at least one bullet hits the target. It seldom works and will only frustrate funders.

Don’t Chase the Dollars—Changing Programs to Fit Funders’ Guidelines Is Never a Good Idea

Above all, don’t change your program to match what the funder is looking to support. More than likely, your data and need statement will show the disconnection. Rather, propose to do what is best for your community and the people you serve. Then, with your tailor-made program design, seek a foundation (or two) that will embrace your community’s need and your program plan.

Research the Need—Provide the Foundation with the Hard, Cold Facts of Why Your Program Is Needed

Well-researched proposals contain verifiable facts and figures that demonstrate the need for the proposed program. Make certain that your need statement is specific and compelling. Don’t forget that it should include the sources of your data and other information. Additionally, you should talk about the urgency of your community’s need for the proposed services. Make certain that your reviewers will know why your organization needs their support now.

Articulate Your Program Plan—Describe Your Implementation Plan in Detail

No foundation is going to support your request for funds if they don’t clearly understand how you intend to use their money. Therefore, a key component of any successful proposal is a strong, clearly written program plan. I believe that there are two key components that many grant writers forget or choose not to include:

  • Program Logic Chart. Personally, I can’t image submitting a grant application that doesn’t include a well-designed program logic chart. These charts visually convey the connection between what services will be provided and the anticipated outcomes to be achieved. Combined with a summary narrative statement, reviewers can easily understand the relevancy of each of your services and activities to the desired changes you are hoping to facilitate.
  • Timeline. You should build confidence in your planning process by providing a detailed timeline that realistically anticipates benchmarks and achievements. Timelines demonstrate that your organization has thoughtfully and realistically projected when each step of your program will be implemented and completed. It is important that you include one with each and every application—whether or not the program guidelines require one or not.

Once I had a client that complained when I told her that I needed her to complete a draft timeline table. In it, I had listed each of the major proposed activities, including the hiring of program staff, promotion and publicity deadlines, benchmarks for each of the outcome objectives, scheduled evaluations, submission of fiscal and program reports, etc. I thought I had made is as easy as possible for her. All she and her staff needed to do was determine the “when” for each listed activity. As she protested that it wasn’t a necessary step, she shared with me that she had no idea when they would complete each task. I patiently explained to her that that is precisely why funders need to see her timeline!

Describe the Catalytic Impact—Explain How Your Proposed Plan Will Spur a Positive Change

Always tell your reviewers what catalytic impact your services will stimulate. Describe in detail what services you will provide. Explain how each will facilitate changes that will enable your organization to make a significant impact upon your community as a whole or your participants.

In other words, tell your potential funder how your program will move your organization from its current performance level to a significantly higher one. Remember that funders want to know that their support will make a significant difference. It is your job to ensure that they understand how their financial contributions will facilitate such a change.

Plan to Evaluate—plan to Learn from Your Successes and Failures

Your foundation partners want to know that you plan to evaluate your program services—not only for what worked, but also for what didn’t work. They need to be reassured that you plan to use the lessons learned to make improvements. So explain to them in detail the process and outcome objectives that you will be tracking and don’t forget to include qualitative questions that are pertinent.

Provide a schedule that shows how often internal evaluation reviews will be conducted. Tell them who will be involved in reviewing the performance data and to whom it will be reported. Last but not least, tell them how you plan to use the lessons that you learned to make your program (and organization) more effective in the future.

In closing, I encourage you to watch the video-taped interviews from the Council on Foundation’s annual conference. After listening to their interviews, I’m confident that you’ll better understand what program officers around the nation are looking for in your next grant proposal.

The video interviews are available through The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s website at:


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