Tips from a Foundation Insider: How to Avoid Common Mistakes and Make Your Best Case in Writing Proposals to Foundations

Tips from a Foundation Insider: How to Avoid Common Mistakes and Make Your Best Case in Writing Proposals to Foundations

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by Elspeth Revere

Even the best fundraisers, writers, journalists, and researchers sometimes fall short when they try to communicate the importance and excitement of their work to foundations. Common mistakes include misunderstanding the goals the funder is pursuing in your field, failing to tell an engaging story, being unclear about your strategy and desired change, and providing too much or too little illustrative detail.

For almost 25 years at the MacArthur Foundation, I saw a wide variety of approaches to foundations by nonprofits seeking funds – and many common mistakes.   I know what is welcome and what raises concerns.

Written proposals play a key role in the process of successfully seeking foundation funds. Foundation program officers understand that they should not judge the work they are being asked to support only by the proposal they receive, but they are very busy and must make quick decisions. The proposal is often their main source of information in deciding whether to learn more or to send a turndown letter.

How can you better communicate your work to funders – and help avoid that dreaded letter? While each organization must find its own way to show how distinctive and effective its work is, there are some common points to keep in mind:

  • Do your homework. Be sure that you understand the priorities and guidelines of the foundation you are approaching. Foundations put a lot of time and energy into selecting their areas of grantmaking focus and building guidelines to support them. You should only approach a foundation if your work – or some part of it – truly fits the foundation’s guidelines. Program officers usually cannot bend the guidelines and impassioned pleas to do so will not be a good use of your time or theirs.
  • Show off your storytelling skills. Describe your work in a way that is interesting, compelling, clear, and fun to read. Especially if your organization’s work involves storytelling, your request will be judged by how well you tell your own story.
  • Be clear about what you do and why you do it. Present your organization’s work clearly and succinctly. Describe your mission, activities, and programs. Be sure to include your desired outcomes and how you will know if you reach them.
  • Don’t use buzzwords, jargon, abbreviations, or acronyms, even if you’re sure that your program officer will understand. You never know who else will read your proposal and you don’t want that foundation president or board member to be confused or frustrated.
  • Talk about people. Use examples and short descriptions to bring your work to life and to show how it effects people. Select examples that fit closely with the program you are describing and provide enough detail to so that they can be well understood.
  • Empower your grant writer. If your organization is lucky enough to have a development officer – or better yet a whole development staff – this does not mean that program staff can hand over all responsibility and walk away. The grant writer needs to hear your stories, understand your programs, and know what you are learning from successes and failures.
  • Help your program officer. Program officers may ask a lot of questions and seem like critics at first, but they become your insider allies when decisions are made about your grant. Be generous in teaching them about your work and your field, enjoy their curiosity, and listen to their advice, but don’t feel you always must take it.

Obtaining support from foundations can be a lengthy and frustrating process, but foundation grants are important to a diversified pool of support for your work. Your connections with foundations can also help expand your network of colleagues, information, and supporters.

Elspeth Revere is the CEO of Ravenswood Consulting Group where she advises donors and nonprofits on effective philanthropy, strategic planning, and nonprofit management. In addition to helping nonprofits make their best case to foundations, she consults on strategic planning, building workable programs, and program evaluation and documentation. She is an advisor to the Alliance on Arts2Work, Building the Creative Economy. She can be reached through LinkedIn or directly at Her last publication in the Alliance newsletter can be found here: