Winning Proposals: Insider Advice From Leading Community Foundations

Winning Proposals: Insider Advice From Leading Community Foundations

The fastest-growing sector of philanthropy in the United States today, community foundations occupy a special position among grant-makers. As publicly supported institutions governed by local citizen boards, they are committed to responding to local community needs and educating nonprofits.

From December 2010 through March 2011, we interviewed a sampling of community foundations to hear their insights about the proposals they receive. Strikingly, their advice converged around several points. Here are a few words of wisdom to grant seekers about how and why funders decide to award funds.

What Is a Community Foundation?

A community foundation is an independent, tax-exempt philanthropic organization governed by a board of directors broadly representative of the public interest and often guided by an advisory board of community leaders. Its mission is to improve the quality of life in a specific geographic area, usually no larger than a state. Structured as a collection of endowed funds or trusts, some of which are donor-advised, community foundations are regarded as a single institution under the law. Grants are distributed based on a percentage of the interest earned on the foundation’s permanent collection of endowed funds. Across the U.S., there are nearly 700 community foundations, holding $35 to $40 billion in assets, and contributing about $2 billion a year to community needs.

5 Tips for Winning Proposals

1. Establish Context

“Most nonprofits don’t understand the importance of knowing who else is playing in their space. It's important to communicate what their community’s landscape looks like.”

With the broad mission of responding to community needs, community foundations place a strong emphasis on context. This makes it important to explain the need for your project in terms of what’s at stake in your community and to support your claims with data. Above all, be sure to explain how your nonprofit fits into the bigger picture that includes other resources (i.e. organizations, services) that are working to meet the same need. Additionally, keep in mind that many funders take context one step further: “For each of our grants, we require a strategic plan for the organization. We have to understand where our support fits in advancing the organization’s mission.”

In order to establish both community and organizational context:

  1. Research where your organization fits both geographically and topically.
  2. Explain the problem you address within the context of your community.
  3. Complete a strategic plan prior to submitting your proposal.
  4. Explain the connection between your organization’s mission and your project.

2. Demand Attention

“At face value all applications have similar urgency.”

 “I can’t tell my board, ‘Great news guys! I just signed off on 10 years of straight funding for the same old thing.’ There’s a human dynamic of futility in that.”

The opposite of futility is, of course, usefulness or success. Funders want to support projects that address problems at their core and change people’s lives in new and ever-more-effective ways. They want nonprofits to make the case that their community-based work matters and the funder’s investment will make a difference.

To make the case that your work is urgent and important, outline in concrete terms what you do well and why the funder’s contribution matters:

  1. Tell a compelling story about how you’re going to enact change and solve problems. (Example: We’re three years from solving X in this state if we get the funding to do Y.)
  2. Explain concretely what funding will enable you to do. (Example: We have a $3 million operating budget and your application allows us to do X.)

3. Emphasize Project Planning

“We all know that the biggest challenge in proposal writing is around reaching clarity in program planning—focusing on the conceptual work in a strategic and comprehensive way. Proposal writing is only about 25% of the issue.”

If you’re unclear about what you’re trying to achieve or what interventions make sense, then it’s very difficult to write a good proposal. Funders are wary of proposals that present a strong need but don’t follow through on the details of the project plan. Avoid submitting a proposal that needs to be “massaged” by foundation officers before they bring it to the board. Don’t rely upon them to fill in gaps or read between the lines to make things clear. Here’s what funders look for in determining whether a project is well planned:

  1. Project conceptualization: How does this project support your organizational values? What does expert research have to say about your approach?
  2. Needs assessment: Do you have demographics to back up your project need?
  3. Project delivery: Who will do what, when, where, and how?
  4. Resources: Why is your organization the best suited to solve this problem? What assets are you contributing? Who are your partners?
  5. Logic model: Show how your approach will lead to successful outcomes.

4. Focus on Change

“Ask yourself what your theory of change is. What is the premise behind the work you do as an organization? What are you going to do that will make a difference?”

“There’s a lot of misunderstanding between outputs and outcomes. Our application asks for their top three measurable objectives, and they focus on the number of clients they’ll serve instead of seeing something critical change in their community. I don’t care that 50 kids went skating. I want to know what happened to them while they were skating.“

What’s the essential ingredient of a winning proposal? “Logical activities in pursuit of outcomes” is how one funder put it. You must convey a sense of purposeful action throughout your proposal and focus on the change that will occur—at the individual or community level. These are your outcomes, the change you will create in your community.

You must also show results for your actions. Funders want to see that you are keeping your eye on the prize and spending their dollars to good use. As one explained: “There needs to be program evaluation and data design to ensure effective programs and effective service delivery.”

Include appropriate evaluation methods:

  1. Present outcomes rather than outputs. (Remember the 50 kids who went skating? Talk about how they took steps toward becoming more physically fit or how they learned to support one another.)
  2. Forecast the promised change in terms of outcome objectives.
  3. Include a plan for documenting measurable changes/outcomes.

5. Build a Relationship

“There’s the old line: Ask for money and you get advice. Ask for advice and you get money. Months before you apply, make sure to talk with me, but don’t ask for anything. If I see you only as supplicant, I’m going to avoid you. It’s not completely fair, but that is the dynamic.”

Many nonprofits are shy about contacting funders, but funders repeatedly expressed that they value getting to know organizations. The message was unequivocal: Don’t overlook the pre-grant submission phase or the post-grant follow-up. To establish a relationship:

  1. Have a trustee or your executive director make contact to build common ground.
  2. Learn about the funder’s interests. (Who are their previous grantees? What were their projects?) This shows that you’re businesslike and value their time.
  3. Once you receive funding, stay in touch. Say thank you.
  4. Share your success. One program office went so far as to ask to be “armed” with stories of success so that he could go back to his board and show that their funds had contributed to change.

Implications for Nonprofits

In conclusion, community foundations take what you do seriously. From their origins in the systematic, scientific philanthropy of the early 1900s to today, they conceive of their goal as addressing the root causes of community ills.

By writing strong, well-researched, and well-planned proposals, you demonstrate to community foundations (and to other funders) that you, too, value the work that you do and the mission you serve. The extra effort you put into grant seeking in this way, will help your proposals rise to the top of the pile and contribute to the success of all of your efforts as an organization.

For more tips on writing successful proposals, follow Grant Central Station as it continues its series of “Conversations with Funders” in the months ahead.