It is very common for larger foundations to require those applying for a grant to first send an Inquiry Letter. Based on that letter, the foundation will decide whether to extend an invitation for the applicant to complete a proposal. The intent is to keep both parties from wasting their time. The foundation can determine from the inquiry letter whether the applicant is a good fit with a reasonable probability of being funded. It can also see rather quickly if funding is very unlikely and save time and energy on both parts.
While the process may seem a bit stressful it is actually a great opportunity for your organization to test the feasibility of your ideas and your specific project. This does not mean that you should run any or all of your project ideas by them — that would not be a productive use of your time, nor would it endear you to the funder. Be sure to do the research we have recommended regarding the funder’s vision and priorities. Be certain also that you meet all eligibility requirements with regard to the type of grant, the area of activity intended, and your geographic location. Make it clear in the letter that there is a strong connection between your objectives and the grant maker’s focus and intentions.
Obviously this is not a full proposal in itself – there is typically a two page limit. You should be very concise. Proofread your draft very carefully being sure every word is appropriate and necessary. Offer the necessary detail without being wordy. Have another person read it and offer suggestions about condensing as well. And of course show the congruency of your goals and the grantmaker’s.
Timing: Timing is important and not always obvious. Your research on foundations and grants should include deadlines. Of course you want to be requesting a grant in advance of your project’s start date. If you find a funder with several submission dates or rounds of grants, provide enough time after one submission date so that those applications will have been processed, and be far enough in advance of the next date (your target) so that you have time to send an inquiry letter and they have time to respond. Be sure to note if the grant includes a specific deadline for Inquiry Letters.
Contact Person: Based on your research you should know to whom to send your letter. Unless you are working with clear and very current information, it is always wise to call the foundation and ask for the appropriate contact and address. If an executive in your organization has developed a relationship with the person receiving inquiry letters, by all means personalize the opening of your letter.
Mailing: If you are sending your letter through the mail it is best to send it with plenty of time to go regular first class. It may seem to elevate the importance and priority of your letter to have it arrive via an overnight service, that can actually be an annoyance to the funder particularly if it is arriving at the last minute.
Synopsis: Your opening paragraph is key. It should provide a summary of your project and its cost. This paragraph will very likely be used by the funder to share proposed projects with other staff. Be specific wherever possible in terms of what you will be doing, how many you will serve,
Impact: This is what it’s all about. You want to express the impact of your project in terms of what it will do for people rather than technical aspects like a remodeled facility or new computer system. Whatever you are doing is being done for a purpose and one that is beneficial to recipients. Make sure that information comes across.
Positive: Avoid the all too common practice of expressing objectives or achievements in uncertain terms — like “if we get this grant” or what “could be done with more funds.” Be clear about what will happen, e.g.: “The XYZ Grant will fund 12,000 additional square feet to house job training classes for the disabled.”
Ownership: A small detail: when describing your project it seems somehow warmer and more natural to call it “our program” rather than “the program.” (Every little bit helps!)
Gift Terms: If specific terms of the grant have not been defined by the funder and there are some that are important to you, by all means include this information in your letter. For example, you might request a portion of the grant to be provided up front, with the remainder distributed periodically over several quarters or years. Such a plan may even increase your likelihood of wining a grant since multi-year grants can be easier for foundations to include. (If you do receive periodic payments always be sure to send notes of thanks and updates about how your project is going.)