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How-to Library • Featuring articles from past issues of Contributions

Small is Beautiful
Especially when it comes to Letters of Inquiry

by Martin Teitel

In what seems to be a trend among foundations, more grant makers are refusing to accept unsolicited proposals. We rely instead on shorter tools for our first and frequently only contact with grant seekers: letters of inquiry, or even in some cases, forms to be downloaded from web sites or filled out on line.

I’d like to look at two questions about this trend towards more concise communications between those of us who make grants and those who receive them. First of all, is this really an improvement for both sides of the grantmaking transaction? And second, if letters of inquiry and the like are here to stay, what can be done to make them work best to obtain funding?

In his 1973 classic, Small is Beautiful, E.F. Schumacher said, “The less toil there is, the more time and strength is left for artistic creativity.” This is a nice summary of the conventional wisdom amongst some of us funders about letters of inquiry (for now I’ll lump variouis preliminary screening tools under the LOI heading). After all, you don’t have to write a long proposal, and I don’t have to read it. Everybody wins: we all have more time available for other endeavors.

of related interest

OF RELATED INTEREST: In Thank You for Submitting Your Proposal, Martin Teitel, the ultimate insider and head of a foundation himself, reveals just what happens when the proposal over which you've labored lands on a funder's desk.

In my office, I tell the staff, now you have more space in your work life to pay attention to the proposals that we’re going to bring to our board, because you don’t have to sort through a huge pile of unsolicited proposals that after all, are often rejected after a fast glance at the cover sheet.

The problem with this line of thinking, as with much grant maker thinking, is that it may serve the needs of funders more than it does grant seekers. It turns out that small may be beautiful, but small can also be really hard to do. My mom was a painter. She once gave me a couple of oil paintings the size of postage stamps that she had traded with an artist friend. She shook her head over them, saying that producing these tiny gems was much more difficult than working with her broad canvasses, where there was lots of room to get an idea across, and a generous margin for error.

Similarly, my wife the minister says that most of her colleagues agree that five minute homilies are the toughest ones to write, compared with the usual 20 or 25 minute sermon. She says you have to be exquisitely focused and disciplined about what your purpose is, and stick to it. There’s no room to wander if your goal is to leave your congregation with something to think about all week.

So let’s pause for a moment here to note that once again, grant makers have come up with an idea that works well for them (there’s little downside for me in requiring LOIs), yet this trend can create substantial problems for grant seekers. In fact boiling down a complex series of problems, strategies and tactics that characterize an entire nonprofit to a few pages – not to mention a web form – can be really hard work.

Even though the grant seeker’s book might be called, Small is Difficult, I want to focus on some ideas I have – as a grant maker – for increasing the chances that your LOI is going to survive the screening process well enough to achieve its purpose. In fact, that brings us to my first suggestion.

 A Letter of Inquiry Has Only One Purpose

An LOI or similar brief tool is a screening device. Your only goal in creating such a thing is to have a full proposal invited by the funder. Your purpose in the LOI is not to exhort, educate, entertain or elucidate. Your single job is to cause the funder to move your LOI to the meager pile of documents that will trigger a call to you asking for more.

 Squelch Creativity

At the risk of sounding like a cranky funder, I’d like to express both surprise and consternation at how many Letters of Inquiry arrive at my foundation’s office that don’t betray an acquaintance with the LOI specifications on our web site. I’m of the belief that the act of acquiring support for your organization is not the best place for you to work out your issues with power and authority.

And while I’ll readily concede that many problems of power in the funding business emanate from funder’s abuses of that power, LOI specifications that I’ve seen on our web site and other foundation web sites seem pretty straightforward guides to maximizing your chance of success (an invited proposal) in the LOI process.

If the funder says send three pages and a budget, I don’t believe you create the best impression when you send seven pages, a t-shirt and no budget. For one thing, the LOI specifics are designed to achieve one result: to give the funder the information she needs to make a decision about your funding request. If she says, I need a budget, not a t-shirt, then sending a t-shirt is going to deprive her of something that she needs to do her job, in spite I’m sure of the compelling fashion statement your proffered shirt might make.

And second, I don’t believe that an LOI is the best occasion for your Hunter S. Thompson impression. Instead, I think you want the grant maker to conclude that you’re a steady, organized person who gets things done, who uses her time well, who projects professionalism and seriousness of purpose.

• Take a Ride on the Elevator

I share the belief of many in the granting business that every fundraiser should put a lot of work into her elevator speech. Let’s imagine you’re at the annual meeting of the Iowa Non-Profit Association, riding up the elevator in the convention hotel to check your email, and a fellow conventioneer spots your organization’s name on your name tag. She says, “Hi. So tell me, what does Iowa Citizens for Safe Pork Production do?”

Between the hotel’s lobby and your room on the 11th floor, you don’t have time for a dissertation on hog confinement operations, pig waste pools, inhumane slaughter methods, or the details of the latest bill on production tax reform that’s before your state legislature. You have merely a few seconds to roll it all up and dazzle.

Well when I pick up your LOI, I’m on the elevator with you, and additionally, I have signing authority on a foundation’s checkbook. I believe you can best achieve your goal (an invitation to a full proposal) if your elevator speech:

- Stays with a high (that is, generalized) level of description. Details are not the friends of LOIs),
- Presents an unbroken chain consisting of problem, strategy, tactics and resources,
- Pauses long enough for the other person in the elevator to toss one question towards you before the doors open at your floor, and
- Manages to infect the listener with the spirit of your work.
These four points are so connected to success in the world of Letters of Inquiry that I’d like to explicate each one a bit more.

Fly High

All of us who are passionate about what we do run the continual risk of inducing MEGO (My Eyes Glaze Over) in those we excitedly tell about our work. The details that fill our days are inevitably sidetracks in a narrative. While great novelists like Thomas Pynchon can make a fine literary career out of colorful sidetracks, and sidetracks of his sidetracks, his books are weighty enough to press the most elaborate high school prom bouquet, while my foundation limits your literary output to three miserly pages of LOI.

Thus, the LOI is not the place where you tell me all of what you do. It’s where you talk about what you do. There will be space for the minutia in the full proposal.

Keep the Circle Unbroken

Eliminating the sidetracks is a good way to help keep your narrative compelling. In an LOI, compelling means that the why leads inevitably to the how that in turn keeps a close grip on the what. You want the reader to understand why your organization is doing the work it does, you want to show how that issue or problem leads to the strategy you’ve selected and the various tactics flowing from that, and what resources you deploy.

Your LOI goal is to have the reader put down your paper and say, “Oh, now I get it.”

Take a Breath

Sometimes someone screening an LOI has a question. Frankly it doesn’t happen that often, because the LOI is supposed to speak for itself. But there might be a concrete question that we need to know, here in foundation land, in order to figure out what to do with your funding request.
Using the Iowa example above, let’s say I’m interested in the development of farmer co-ops, but I don’t have a program that works with individual farmers (this is a made-up example; please don’t start sending me co-op proposals.) In reading your LOI, I’m interested in several features of what you describe, but I recognize that in the limited space made available to you, you haven’t been able to make clear if your proposed project is going to be directed at farmer co-ops or not.

So I find your name and number on the LOI (you did write that information on your LOI, did you not?) and I call you up. There you are with a live funder on the line. I ask my question about co-ops. I have two suggestions about what happens next.

One is that you actually answer the question I’m asking, as opposed to telling me about sow mortality and the newest problem in moving your organization’s chicken farming bill into the right state legislature committee. I’m delighted to chat, but it’s useful for your cause if I hang up having found out what I called to learn.

The other suggestion is to not give me some version of the response, “Well which answer will get me the money?” This happens to me more than you might imagine. When it does, I see you change from someone vigorously dedicated to a particular line of work to someone who is on a fishing expedition, and I’m the large-mouth bass. That kind of wishy-washy response fails to communicate dedication to your work and sound planning.

Your Heart on Your Sleeve

People understandably fall into two traps when it comes to communicating the feelings behind their work. Some people, feeling quite incarcerated by my 3-page LOI limit, end up with a dry recitation of facts that is complete, but without soul. Brevity doesn’t have to be the enemy of enthusiasm.
Speaking of enthusiasm, that’s the other problem: too much of a good thing. What persuades people to change their mind comes from their adoption of compelling ideas. This is distinct from being sprayed with highly wrought adjectives and adverbs that don’t convey an idea, just ardor. Far too many LOI’s inform me that the project is important, unique and up-to-date. But I’m left wondering: and then?

Electronic Madness

Author and fundraising expert Susan Golden has written previously in these pages about the problems grant seekers face in trying to connect with already-remote grant makers when that communication is mediated by web-based forms. In fact her careful thinking has helped my own foundation to revise our plunge into the paperless world.

So my final comment about success with LOI’s is to ask that you try to follow Susan’s prescriptions (Contributions, March 2007). Especially, with LOIs, never compose live on line. And if the form limits you to a certain sized response, treat this limit as something more than a friendly suggestion. It might help you to remember that everyone who applies to that funder is faced with the same limits of length. Your best friend in the case of enforced brevity will be your elevator speech.

At the end of the day, I persist in thinking that Letters of Inquiry help the grant making process. LOI’s enable funders to put more time into proposals that are “live” in their process instead of shuffling mountains of ill-aimed proposals. And brief inquires do permit grant seekers to limit their investment as they try to discern what funders are willing to fund. Letters of inquiry are here to stay – I hope they can be practical tools for everyone in the granting process.

Martin Teitel is Executive Director of the Cedar Tree Foundation, a private foundation and the author of Thank You for Submitting Your Proposal, by Emerson & Church. Previously he served as Senior Fellow and Executive Director of the CS Fund, a philanthropic foundation, and also Western Field Director for a public charity, The Youth Project.

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