Letter-Writing Tips When Dealing With Funders

Imagine you are a program officer of a medium-sized family foundation. It’s late in the day, and it will be another hour before you go home. You have a lot to read, and you pick up the next two proposals from your pile. The first one has a cover letter that reads,

Dear Program Officer:
As per our phone call today, we are writing to request $50,000 in order to disaggregate the multiple causes of follow-through failure in nutritional and health counseling by underprivileged adolescents in the Green County Area.

The second one says,

Dear Ms. Jones,
Thank you for taking the time to talk with me today. At your suggestion, I am sending a description of the work we do with teenagers to help them understand the relationship of what they eat to how they feel, and the relationship of how they feel to how they behave. We are requesting $50,000 from the Family Foundation toward this work. The attached proposal details our plans.

Which proposal would you read first?

Tips on Writing Good Letters

There are only three things to remember when writing letters to funders.
1) Funders are tired, have too much to do or have a lot on their mind. In fact, the funder is a lot like you, and no matter how well meaning and dedicated they are, they will pay more attention to letters that are easy to read and understand than to ones that aren’t.

2) Funders tend to be cynical. They have been promised an end to racism, pollution, child abuse and world hunger for only $50,000 more times than they can count. They have been snowed with words by organizations that seem to think that the longer their proposal is the better. As you write, imagine the funder asking at the end of the first sentence, “So what does this have to do with our grant guidelines and the issues we care about?” If the answer to “so what?” is satisfactory, the next sentence causes the question, “Now what?” Does this sentence offer a solution, provide more information, create confidence in the organization? If “now what?” is answered satisfactorily, then we are back to “so what?” and so on.

3) Use language that is familiar to the funder. Note the words and phrases funders use in their annual reports and grant guidelines. Use their words to describe your project without engaging in mission drift. You can do this overtly, “Because of your long history of economic literacy, we are asking you to support our credit education classes which are a component of our lending program,” and less transparently, in the phrases and words you use. If they have funded you before, note that. “Your last grant made it possible to do…, and now we want to do…”

The Importance of Thanking Funders
Many funders have told me that the most extraordinary juxtaposition in their work is the degree to which they are cultivated by their grantees before being awarded the grant, and the way they are dropped like a hot potato once the grant agreement is signed. Funders need to be thanked after you receive the grant, and kept informed of the progress of the grant in addition to the required reports. This does not have to be onerous.

A simple, handwritten note or typed thank-you letter with a personal note as a postscript can do more to ensure good relations with funders than almost any other form of recognition.

Do It Now
How can you most efficiently thank your funders, and who should do it? Perhaps the most important rule about thanking the funder is that the grant award should be acknowledged within two days of receipt, a week at the outside. You can attach a note to the grant agreement when you return it, but also send a separate note. As much as possible, the person in your organization who did most of the grant negotiations should sign the thank-you note.

Buy some nice note cards, or have some made with your logo on the front. There is only a small amount of space to fill on a note card so you can take up the whole space with a few short sentences. That is much better than a three-line thank you on a full sheet of stationary.

The only equipment for handwritten thank you’s is legible handwriting. The format is simple. If you know something personal about the funder, acknowledge it when appropriate: “Hope your cat, Fluffy, has recovered from her spaying.” Use the thank-you note to humanize your organization. For example:

Dear Ricardo,
We got a pile of mail today – bills, flyers, newsletters, and then, a letter saying you had given us a grant! Thank you! $10,000 really goes a long way in this organization, and we are grateful for your support.

I just finished talking with a woman who used our educational flyer with her son. She said she had expected a miracle, and though of course that didn’t happen, maybe something more lasting did. Her son called the HelpLine. It’s a start, and that’s what we provide for people.

I hope you will feel free to drop by sometime, or call ahead if you want a regular tour. I’ll keep you posted on our progress.

At the end of the day, funders should be treated like donors, assuming that you treat your donors properly. Many organizations have had the experience of program officers becoming individual donors when their relationship as a funder had ended.

Make sure the language you use to describe yourself is as easy to understand as possible without oversimplifying what you do. Keeping in touch during the period of the grant award does not take that much time, and will lead to more and better relationships with funders and donors.

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