thank You for Submitting Your Proposal

Martin Teitel


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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 + shipping

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:

A) Empathy
B) Information
C) Termination

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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