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The Ultimate Insider's Guide to Winning Foundation Grants
A Foundation CEO Reveals the Secrets You Need to Know
by Martin Teitel, 188 pp., $24.95 (Click here for quantity discount information)
Reading The Ultimate Insider’s Guide to Winning Foundation Grants is like peeking at someone’s secret diary or personal email. You feel guilty. This is privileged information.
Only in this case Martin Teitel WANTS to reveal everything to you. A long-time foundation CEO, he’s fed up with the smoke and mirrors of grant seeking.
As head of the Cedar Tree Foundation, Teitel dispensed tens of millions of dollars in grants. He knows the secrets, the preferred approaches, the red flags - and he wants you to know them, too. He’s committed to leveling the playing field.
Teitel’s book is divided into four parts:
Part One takes you behind the scenes to show you exactly what foundation insiders look for in proposals.
Part Two exposes seven misguided myths about foundations.
Part Three offers you literally dozens of do’s and don’ts when developing your proposal.
Part Four, Administering the Truth-Detector Test to America’s Charitable Foundations, offers courageously frank answers to questions we’ve all longed to ask foundations.
Teitel is the ultimate foundation insider. He’s been in the corner office, and in the boardroom. He knows the secrets, the preferred approaches, the red flags. And he feels it’s only right that you know them, too.
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About the Author
Martin Teitel has worked in the world of nonprofits for 45 years, 30 of them for grant making foundations, including a 12-year stint at CEO of the Cedar Tree Foundation in Boston. Teitel has a PhD in philosophy from the Union Institute, Cincinnati, and a Masters in Social Work from San Diego State University. He is a Field Education Supervisor for the Harvard Divinity School.
Table of Contents
Introduction: I’ve Looked at Life from Both Sides Now
Part One: Thank You for Your Proposal
Chapter 1 – Not-So-Divided Loyalties: Whom Does the Funder Work For?
Chapter 2 – Let the Games Begin: Letters of Inquiry
Chapter 3 – Meat and Potatoes: Proposals and Budgets
Chapter 4 – Writing a Wonderful Proposal
Chapter 5 – Sweaty Palms: In-Person Meetings with Funders
Chapter 6 – Making Sausage: How Foundation Staff and Boards Decide
Chapter 7 – Reports: What to Do after You Are Funded
Chapter 8 – You Really Can Do It
Part Two: Myths about Foundations
Chapter 9 – Myth One: Fundraising Isn’t That Hard
Chapter 10 – Myth Two: Foundations Are Straightforward and Honest, and You Can Take That to the Bank
Chapter 11 – Myth Three: Charming the Foundation Will Conceal Your Flaws
Chapter 12 – Myth Four: Funders Don’t Read Grant Reports
Chapter 13 – Myth Five: It’s Fine to Embellish – Everyone Does It
Chapter 14 – Myth Six: Funding Is a Cat and Mouse Game, and Guess Who’s the Mouse?
Chapter 15 – Myth Seven: Funders Don’t Care
Part Three: The Grant Seeker’s Reality Check
Chapter 16 – Six Things You Can Do to Help Your Proposal Make the First Cut
Chapter 17 – Eight Red Flags Foundations Are Wary Of
Chapter 18 – Seven Reasonably Easy Things You Can Do to Improve Your Proposal
Chapter 19 – Five Mistakes Too Many Applicants Make
Chapter 20 – Four Questions You Can Expect to Be Asked about Your Proposal
Chapter 21 – Don’t Be Too Concerned about These Three Peripheral Matters
Chapter 22 – Four Things You Should Never Do When Approaching Foundations
Chapter 23 – Five Questions to Ask When Meeting with the Program Officer
Chapter 24 – A Short List of Unequivocal Don’ts
Chapter 25 – Six Ways to Help Assure Repeat Funding
Part Four: Administering the Truth-Detector Test to America’s Charitable Foundations
Chapter 26 – Questions and Answers
Final Words: Plant and Tend Your Garden with Care
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Excerpt This article is adapted from Martin Teitel’s book, Winning Foundation Grants, ©Emerson & Church, Publishers. To obtain
reprint permission, please call 508-359-0019
Administering the Truth-Detector Test of America’s Private Foundations
In Part Four of his book, Teitel answers a host of questions about the practices of private foundations. Excerpted here are answers to just three of the many questions.
1) Countless organizations submit proposals and months later receive polite, vague letters of rejection. It's almost as if foundations won't tell you the real reason your proposal was rejected.
This is true. Saying “no” euphemistically is part of most rejection – screeners for film festivals, banks considering loans, nervous teenagers trying for a prom date.
As a funder, I had two reasons for fuzzy prose. The lesser reason is that it’s cheaper and faster to send out a form letter. The more compelling one, for me, is that when I tried explaining the “real” reason I frequently found it was a waste of time and an exercise in frustration. People get defensive and argumentative – and the conversation drags on.
Here’s a compromise tactic my staff used. We first sent out the much-mocked form letters – which, by the way, many foundations continually tweak to convey a tone of respect, regret, and finality. Then, if someone we rejected called, I asked my staff to follow this three-part formula:
Empathy in this case refers to a brief, non-patronizing statement about feelings. Not “I know how you feel,” but more along the lines of “I’m sorry this didn’t work out; it must be disappointing.” We start by acknowledging the passions involved.
Next, the foundation staffer provides a reason for the rejection. This is the hardest part to do well, since the reason sometimes is we thought the strategy was dumb, or we didn’t think your organization had the competence, or some other harsh judgment. So like parents at a fourth-grade production of Macbeth, we struggle to find something to say that rings true but doesn’t devastate.
Finally, termination is the key. Having tried to show some feelings and to provide a reason for the rejection, we thank the person for calling and hang up the phone. Knowing the caller may have paid good money at a grant-writing workshop for the (counterproductive) advice to keep the funder on the phone at all costs, this task can be a struggle. But failure to keep it short is how the conversation can quickly degenerate into recrimination and worse – to everyone’s detriment.
2) Rather than helping nonprofits cover their operating costs, grant makers overwhelmingly prefer to make grants that support specific projects or direct delivery of services.
I regret to inform you – this is true. There are two closely related reasons why. First, foundations are – appropriately – under a lot of pressure from the IRS and state officials to be accountable and from their boards of directors to show results. Often, these requirements mean foundations want results that are quantifiable, measurable. Those ideas are frequently reduced to units of population served or some other project-oriented metric.
The second reason is that some foundation boards put their staff under considerable pressure to fund work that board members see as directly helping the community, however these board members might understand the words help and community. The building of organizational competence and supporting nonprofit infrastructure are some of the goals that can be lost as a result.
Although some grant maker–grant seeker problems are created by both sides of the transaction, the insistence on supporting only projects, rather than “general support,” is one I lay at the feet of funders. I don’t like to sound too pessimistic, but in this case I can’t think of what would motivate grant makers to relent on this habit.
A cynical person – alas, I’m one of them – might claim that funders insist on project support because it keeps grantees on the shortest leash. General support means the money is given for any legal purpose the grantee decides. Letting the grantee choose how to spend the grant moves some of the power from the grant maker to the grant receiver.
3) Ask any grant maker, and he or she will tell you that grant-writing workshops promulgate a number of cockeyed notions.
True. The number one silliness perpetuated by some grant-writing teachers is “Go to the top.” Time and again when I ran foundations, grant seekers would poke and prod to get me on the phone. In many cases, I was just about the last person they should have been trying to reach, especially when there was a genuine expert in their field down the hall. Aside from wasting their time and mine, this insistence on starting at the top – often accomplished by a little more pushiness than my sense of decorum allowed – ended up leaving a bad impression. By going up the down staircase, you slow everyone down and risk damaging your reputation with those you’d most like to influence.
Here’s a second wrongheaded notion: some people are still teaching aspiring proposal writers to frame everything in terms of “goals and objectives.” The truth is, in many cases this rigid framework diminishes effective communication. Tell the story of what you’re going to do, why, and what resources you’ll mobilize. I’ve seen the most wonderful, impressive work squeezed and squelched into rigid pseudo-militaristic lingo. To best gauge the right tone for your proposal, look at the funder’s Web site. See how they express themselves. Few foundations I know of talk in terms of their goals and objectives.
Here’s a third canard, a variant of the advice to go to the top. In this version, a grant seeker is advised to get in touch with the funder and explain why his or her work is important even when the published guidelines don’t include that particular area and, sometimes, specifically exclude it. I never saw the wisdom of this, since it trumpets to the funder your reluctance to read the rules or follow them. Foundation staff members don’t have the power to change most of the rules, hidden boards of directors do. If you want to become a foundation reform activist, this could be a good thing. Just don’t do it as part of your grant-seeking effort.
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Interview with Martin Teitel
QUESTION: Why do foundations seem to be such "black boxes"?
Teitel: Many foundations seal themselves off for two reasons. For one thing, there’s little incentive to become more transparent and accountable, even though some try. But second, foundations have to somehow insulate themselves from the onslaught of fundraisers, many of whom don't do enough basic research to learn that they're wasting the funder's - and their own - time.
QUESTION: What prompted you to write a book about the inner workings of foundations?
Teitel: After nearly 40 years working for both nonprofit organizations and the foundations that fund them, I could see that the people who get foundation grants aren't necessarily the ones doing the best work. It seemed like a good idea to try to help level the playing field.
QUESTION: Are you saying that technique can trump better ideas?
Teitel: Absolutely – especially when people doing good work don’t effectively communicate what they’re doing.
QUESTION: That must mean you've unwittingly funded some bad projects now and then.
Teitel: Not at all. We’ve sometimes funded some good proposals when we could have funded better ones. Technique doesn’t bamboozle us into doing dumb things, but it may give an edge to someone with an already good project.
QUESTION: Is the insider knowledge you’re sharing in your book secret? Why hasn’t anyone written something like this before?
Teitel: There are some great books out there on raising money from foundations written by people outside the foundation community. I suspect that many of my colleagues, already overwhelmed with an avalanche of funding requests, aren’t too interested in increasing the flow.
QUESTION: Grantseeking has become such an industry ... with workshops every other week, specialized consultants, a multitude of how-to books. It all seems like a cat and mouse game now. Does it have to be this way?
Teitel: Emphatic no! If people put more care and attention into their funding efforts, especially if they tried to create a mix of different kinds of funding – rather than rely heavily on foundations – then there’d be less need for all the professional hand-holding.
QUESTION: Is it likely foundations will receive even more proposals as a result of your book?
Teitel: Perhaps. But everyone should have a fair shot at the $25 billion in grants that’s available each year. This is a big business. Why should highly paid experts and consultants have the advantage?
QUESTION: Considering the sheer number of proposals they receive, do foundations really review everything that comes in?
Teitel: All foundations open and read their mail. So there’s always rudimentary screening. But careful screening often isn’t needed, because once you open the envelope it becomes apparent the writer didn’t pay enough attention to how that foundation works. Separating the wheat from the chaff isn’t all that hard, although it does take some time.
QUESTION: What’s the single biggest mistake people applying for foundation grants make?
Teitel: Something I see all the time is proposals that put a huge amount of detail into describing a particular problem, but they don’t say nearly enough about what’s going to be done, specifically and concretely, to address that problem. Years ago I read a “peace” proposal consisting of many pages of stark detail about the effects of nuclear explosions on human beings, including two pages of melting eyeballs and burning flesh. Tucked in the end were some general statements about the need for people to pay attention to this danger. There was no hope, no vision of a world that was improved, and very little about how we might get to a better place.
QUESTION: People say getting a grant is all about who you know. Is that true?
Teitel: The power of access is greatly overrated. If I get a call from a friend asking for funding, yes, I’m likely to talk with her. But after that, I’ll pass along her call to someone on the staff to avoid any conflict of interest.
QUESTION: But if the staff knows the boss in involved, won’t they either subtly or overtly defer to you?
Teitel: I doubt it. It just isn’t that important to the granting process that I know someone with a proposal. My own mother once asked me for funding. I turned her down.
QUESTION: How important is the format of the proposal?
Teitel: Well, a proposal written on the back of a napkin might not reflect good planning. But I once funded a group whose initial pitch was on a postcard, and certainly I’m not impressed by fancy binding and shiny presentation folders. Overall, what matters is clear, concise and compelling writing.
QUESTION: What's the biggest misperception grantseekers have about foundations?
Teitel: That they don’t care. Foundation staff I know are passionate about the organizations they fund – I get buttonholed all the time by my colleagues, who want me to pay attention to groups they care about. When foundation boards turn down staff-recommended proposals, it’s often devastating to the staff who tried to get that grant made.
QUESTION: Do you personally know firsthand the sting of having a proposal rejected?
Teitel: Yes. It’s happened to me many times. And even though it feels bad to turn down a group you know deserves a grant, the funder’s angst doesn’t compare to a grantseeker’s terrible anxiety after being rejected, knowing that the people who are counting on you for their work and livelihood are going to be in jeopardy.
QUESTION: Is the phrase "approachable foundation" an oxymoron?
Teitel: There’s no doubt that the unaccountable power of foundations causes some of them to lose sight of the basics of courtesy. But in the last decade or so I’ve noticed some concerted effort on the part of foundations to treat the people who approach them better. I think this is because foundations became zealous in the 1980’s and ‘90’s about hiring more staff with real experience in nonprofits. And also some foundation board members began realizing that staff are their public face. One board member of a family foundation once told me, “You’re us more than we are!”
QUESTION: Will a person who reads “The Ultimate Insider's Guide to Winning Foundation Grants” stand a much better chance of landing a grant?
Teitel: If someone reads this book and does a great job of telling their story, organizing their material, and sending it to the right funder, then yes, you bet, that person’s proposal is much more likely to rise to the top of the funder’s pile – assuming the project is worthwhile in the first place. I worked hard in writing this book to share every tip and trick that I've learned in four decades in the funding and nonprofit community. This book isn't magic, but it should give a strong boost to people who are working to fund their organizations.