Write the Proposal

Generally, written contact with a potential funder will be in one of two forms - a letter of inquiry or a full proposal. Some funders will also allow for a cover letter to accompany the proposal.

Letter of Inquiry

If background material is not available online, your first contact with a foundation should be to request information about the foundation's missions and goals, specifically an annual report, giving guidelines, and grants list. If - after carefully reviewing this material - you determine that this foundation is an appropriate match for you, your next contact is likely to be a Letter of Inquiry, which is a brief summary of your project.

A Letter of Inquiry (also known as a Letter of Intent, a query letter, a pre-proposal, or a concept paper) is a timesaver for both the foundation reviewer and the proposal writer, as it allows the reviewer to assess quickly whether or not there is a good match between the foundation's interests and the proposer's project. If the reviewer determines that it is a good match, he or she can request a more complete description as would be found in a full proposal. In fact, when you read the words, "proposals not accepted," it does not necessarily mean that a Letter of Inquiry is out of order. If the reviewer likes what he or she reads, you may be invited to submit a full proposal.

Technique and content in a Letter of Inquiry


If the funder requests a full grant proposal you should carefully read the Request for Proposals (RFP) or fully review the funder's materials to get a clear concept of who the funder is. For more information on targeting funders to approach, click for questions to consider when researching and click for a list of questions to help you evaluate a funder.

Before you begin to write, be clear about who your audience will be. Will your proposal be reviewed by a program officer or a review committee? Will the reader be so intimately familiar with your discipline that very academic or scientific language is not only okay, but expected? Or should you write for the "educated layperson"? Step #1 in successful proposal writing - know your audience!

Generally, writing to a foundation calls for a different style than writing to a governmental entity, a corporation, or an individual. You are building a case based on proven need and innovative solution. Do not use cheerleading or boosterism language. Save this language for your cover letter or for proposals to corporations or individuals. Do not mix rationale with method; that is, you should keep your discussion of why you are doing what you propose separate from how you will be doing it.

Review the specific contents of a full proposal.

Cover Letter

Cover letters are like bonuses, especially if there is a proposal page limit. Try to keep them to one page. Have a top-ranking official sign them. Use them to demonstrate institutional support. Re-emphasize the main goal of the project. Here is where the writer makes vision statements and states how the smaller project is part of a larger whole, whether it be the work of your institution, or the surrounding community, or the world! The flowery language that didn't belong in your proposal can go here.