Although American charitable giving patterns show that individuals contribute over 83 percent and foundations only about 12 percent, we in the arts often enjoy a slightly larger share of our gifts from foundations. So naturally, the first place we think to search for new support is from foundations. But how to go about it?
There are a few principles to apply. First of all, foundations come in all sizes and shapes—from large structured private foundations that have strict application forms to family foundations that don't even accept applications, and everything between. Every foundation is different, and you have to tailor your approach to each foundation or it won't be effective," says Paul D. Olson, director of development for VocalEssence in Minneapolis.
After identifying a foundation you want to approach, invest some time and energy in research. Most of this information can be found online. Find out what the foundation funds. If the focus is limited to health care or social services, move on. Be sure you understand deadlines, whether your chorus qualifies as a recipient, and what is required in the application process. For example, some foundations will only accept proposals from organizations that have a professional yearly audit.
It takes time to develop a successful relationship with a foundation. Even if one of your board members knows a foundation board member, make sure that you are in direct communication with the program officer. Bypassing the program officer can create bad feelings and obstacles.
It helps to know where the power lies. Get to know the foundation's staff and determine if the board is actively involved in grantmaking or whether the board takes its cues from the staff. Your board members may be able to help you with this aspect of the research process by talking to their friends and colleagues.
It takes time to develop a successful relationship with a foundation. Even if one of your board members knows a foundation board member, make sure that you are in direct communication with the program officer. Bypassing the program officer can create bad feelings and obstacles that are easily avoided. Keep the program officer informed, and be truthful about your organization's challenges as well as its successes. Remember, the program officer's responsibility is to provide the most complete information possible to the foundation's board.
Letter of Inquiry
Many foundations prefer a letter of inquiry from you before they invite you to submit a proposal. Again, this information is often found on their website. Here are suggestions for a letter of inquiry:
- Keep it to one page—be succinct and business-like
- Give a brief description of your organization and the program
- Indicate why you are applying to this particular foundation
- Briefly describe the rationale and purpose of the program (avoid making reference to cost or budget at this early stage in the process)
Writing the Proposal
Once you've made it through the inquiry process, it's time to write your proposal. Begin by reviewing all guidelines, and follow the directions carefully. "It's a lot like baking a cake from scratch," says Olson. "You have to make sure you actually have all the ingredients and equipment on hand before you start. You have to follow the directions exactly or the cake might not rise."
Whether you're looking for general operating funds or support for a specific project, when you apply for a grant, you'll need to set forth clear goals and objectives. Describe the mission and vision of your chorus and the actual activities you carry out. You may be asked to supply a project timetable, including frequency and duration of activities, program content, and methods and materials to be employed.
Whether you're looking for general operating funds or support for a specific project, when you apply for a grant, you'll need to set forth clear goals and objectives.
Explain how your audience will benefit from your work and how you may help solve problems within your community. Document that your group has the organizational capacity to carry out the project. Articulate innovative features of your proposal that will help set it apart from others being considered.
Based on your prior research, ask for an amount of support that falls within the foundation's guidelines. Check your budget with your organization's fiscal officer, and make sure your budget items are complete and relate to your audit if appropriate. Double-check your arithmetic and account for unusual budget variances in a budget narrative.
Many funders require an evaluation plan for measuring the success of a project. Describe your present benchmarks and the results you hope to achieve, and explain how the results will be quantified.
Partnering with another organization may strengthen your proposal. When creating a partnership, work with organizations that can effectively cooperate with you in preparing the proposal and provide them with final copies.
Finally, you may need to prepare appendices with supporting documents such as personal vitae, letters of interest from the people you will reach, and a statement of commitment from prospective partners.
Even with the most careful preparation, you may find that your proposal is declined. It might be because the foundation doesn't yet know your chorus well enough. Don't be discouraged. Call the program officer and ask why your project was declined. There are many grants made only after an organization has applied unsuccessfully for several years, so be prepared to refine your proposal and apply again. Here are some common reasons why proposals are declined:
- Your project does not strike the reviewer as interesting or significant
- The project objectives are too ambitious in scope, even unachievable
- Your objectives do not match those of the foundation
- The budget is not within range of funding available
- The proposal is poorly written and hard to understand
- The project hasn't been documented properly
- Your evaluation procedure is inadequate
You have been awarded the grant! As your project moves forward, be sure to meet all report deadlines. Keep the program officer informed of any changes to your project as soon as they happen. As specified in your proposal, credit the foundation appropriately on your website and in print materials such as concert programs and newsletters. All this is part of the stewardship that helps you qualify for the next grant.
Personally invite the foundation board and program officers to key events in the life of your project so they can experience first-hand what they are supporting. They may be granting someone else's money, but they also like to be thanked and respected.
Now, best of luck!
This article is adapted from The Voice, Fall 2007.