Are You Writing for the Wrong Donors?

I am often asked if the same proposal can be submitted to different types of donors. For anyone who has extensive experience with various types of grants, the answer is obvious. No, you cannot submit the same proposal to different donors. Although grant programs may be somewhat similar from agency to agency or federal to foundation, glaring differences stand out at all stages of the process.

When considering a federal grant, you need to know:

  • Are you eligible? This is spelled out specifically in the Request for Proposal (RFP) or Request for Application (RFA).
  • When is the deadline? Most submissions are sent through, which specifies a given date and time for each RFP/RFA.
  • What is the Catalogue of Federal and Domestic Assistance (CFDA) number? All federal grants are given a CFDA number, which is a universal identifier for the grant and is used many times in the submission process.
  • What is the award amount? Knowing the grant amount ensures your budget does not exceed limitations, and it also allows you to manage project or research expectations.
  • How many proposals will be funded? This information allows you to estimate the success rate on this competition, and therefore, your chances of winning.
  • Is there a match requirement? Often federal grants request matching funds. However, a couple notable exceptions are the NIH and NSF.
  • What are the directions and format requirements? Instructions for your proposal are found in the RFP/RFA and must be followed to the letter.
  • How will my proposal be reviewed? The scoring criteria are usually included in the RFP/RFA. If not, request them from the program officer.
  • What forms and whose signatures are required? The RFP/RFA and will include specific information about forms, signatures, and other certifications needed to complete your proposal submission.
  • Who is the program officer? This is included in the RFP/RFA, and typically listed on the agency website as well. Contact him or her with any questions, but only after reading the RFP/RFA.

When considering a foundation or private grant, you need to know:

  • What is the foundation’s mission? Knowing the mission of the donor will allow you to make an effective match with the mission of your institution.
  • What does the annual report tell you? These reports are a good guide to the past and future giving of the foundation.
  • Who leads the foundation or makes decisions about funding? You should Google every board member and the leadership. Doing so will give you an understanding of the granting emphasis and decision-making of the foundation.
  • What do the tax returns (990pf) indicate? Looking over the 990pf tells you who the foundation funded, how much they gave, and for what purpose. You can then assess how this compares to your needs.
  • Where are the submission directions? In many cases, the process instructions are located on the donor’s website. If you cannot find this information, contact the foundation.
  • Will a draft proposal or concept paper help you? Be sure to check if this is a requirement; some donors request this step before inviting you to submit a full proposal. Whether a requirement or not, developing a concept paper will help you solidify your ideas.
  • Who should you contact with questions? Unlike federal donors, it is not as easy to make contact with a foundation. If possible, try to speak with the program officer or head of funding.
  • What are the benefits of developing and maintaining a relationship with the donor? Since you may need ongoing support, be sure to involve the foundation at all stages. Further, even after the funding is over, continue the relationship. Your reputation as a good steward of funding cannot be overstated, and often, board members from different organizations are familiar with each other.
  • How much of your finance and administration charges will the foundation pay? Be prepared to negotiate the overhead charges of your institution, which will be much less than what you may receive from some federal agencies.
  • What should you do if you receive a rejection letter? Speak with the foundation representative or program officer to see if a resubmission will be considered. If so, follow through and resubmit a revised proposal.

The differences between federal and foundation grants are evident from the points above. Federal grants are drawn from taxpayer money, which dictates accountability and specific regulations on how and when the money is awarded. Many foundations, on the other hand, have been established by individuals – both living and deceased – to promote the causes of grantor. Often, they are willing to fund out-of-the-box and risky projects. Chances are, once a strong relationship is developed between a foundation and an institution, it will continue. On the other hand, federal grants must adhere to peer reviews, evaluations, and relatively unbiased decisions when granting each award. In the current environment of diversified funding for projects, understanding how both types of donors tend to work is necessary for grant success.

Mathilda Harris

Over the past 18 years, she has written grants, conducted capital campaigns, developed strategic plans for grant procurement, and assisted individuals and institutions to write winning proposals for various donors.

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