Insights Proposal Writing

Beyond the Basics of Grant Writing

While grants may masquerade as simple applications for money, successful, grant writing requires reliable research, cultivation of the grantmaker, an action-oriented, deadline based plan for successful completion, and attention to the details. Applying for grants doesn’t need to be overwhelming if you break down the simple steps along the way.

Do Your Homework, and Get a Meeting

Grantmaking organizations have limited funds and full portfolios, so if you are going to break into that portfolio you have to show that your work aligns with the funder’s objectives and goals—all while standing out amongst the crowd. This means you need to do your homework before even starting the application. Doing your homework significantly improves your chances of getting in the door, and securing an in-person meeting provides the opportunity for the funder to extend a verbal invitation to apply for a grant. For most grantmaking institutions, being invited to apply is 80% of the battle. 

Here are a few good places to start your research:

  • Go to the funder’s website and identify their key initiatives to see if your organization or project is a fit.
  • Review their past and current grantees to see what projects have earned their investment, and to see if you offer something competitive and compelling.
  • If the grantmaker does not list past grantees on their website, go to sites like or and review their grant list. This will give you a sense of what they fund, and at what amount, which can help you propose an amount that is more likely to get a “yes”.
  • Prepare a short pitch about your organization and project that shows how you meet their giving objectives and request a meeting to discuss applying for a grant. It is best to do this by phone. If you aren’t able to speak to a person directly, send a follow-up email with your pitch; follow up in one week if you don’t hear back.

Identify the Deadline, and Schedule Incremental Internal Deadlines

You and your team are busy, and successful grant applications will require input from program staff, budget information from finance, quotes and signatures from the Executive Director or CEO, and supporting materials from the marketing team or other administrators. You will need to plan ahead to ensure you are able to obtain the necessary information from everyone involved in time. If you are a small organization, be even more rigorous in your planning as it is likely the various elements of the grant will fall to just one or two individuals.

When you’re ready to get started:

  • Read through the grant in its entirety and identify all the people from whom you will need information.
  • Put the grant deadline on your calendar and create incremental internal deadlines—consider co-workers and others you need information from so you are creating achievable deadlines. Be sure to communicate these internal deadlines with everyone involved upfront so there are no surprises.
  • Identify the part of the grant that will be most challenging for you to complete and start with that section. Work your way back to the more manageable sections to finish, when you have less energy for the work.
  • Pay attention to the requested attachments. Gathering attachments always takes longer than anticipated, and this is often left to the last minute since attachments appear at the end of the grant application. Begin working on the more complex attachments (i.e. budgets or outcomes) early on, but go ahead and gather the easier ones (i.e. tax designation letter, audit). right away and set them aside.

Answer the Question Asked and Show How You Solve Their Problem

Beware of cutting and pasting. You likely have great content written about your organization or project that you have produced before. Pulling from prior work to apply to relevant questions on the grant application is a great starting point, but when you revise your initial responses be sure you have specifically answered the questions asked. Craft your language to resonate with the funder’s style and show how your work speaks directly to their giving focus and philosophy.

Here are a few tips to consider:

  • After you draft your grant application answers, let the grant sit for a day or two, and then re-approach with the question, “Did I answer the question asked?” in mind. Revise accordingly.
  • Cull the grantor’s website, annual report, or strategic plan (anything you can find!) for language and key phrases that you can use to show at a granular level how your work supports their mission and vision. Do not carelessly mimic language – authenticity is critical. What do you do and what is the real and meaningful connection to their work?
  • Give what they ask for and no more. They don’t want to read more; they want to read what is relevant.
  • Consider how you help them achieve their goals, how partnering with you will fulfill their giving objectives, how you solve a problem for them and articulate that.

Grants bridge and formalize partnerships between those with the capacity to give back and those with the passion, programming, and talent to make front line change in the world. Grants are not obstacles, but rather opportunities for organizations to articulate a purposeful message and to show how, in the end, we are all connected in a shared desire to leverage different assets to make a lasting positive impact.

Fundraising Campaigns & Strategic Planning Insights

The Leadership Model of Philanthropy

“Philanthropy is focused, not on symptoms, but on root causes. It is systemic, not episodic; proactive rather than reactive. In short, the goal of philanthropy is not so much to provide assistance or service; rather, it seeks to permanently alter the conditions that make assistance necessary. What this means is that to effect significant and lasting change, a philanthropic organization must be a leadership organization.”

With these words, the Lumina Foundation’s President and CEO, Jamie Merisotis, makes a compelling case for foundations to embrace the Leadership Model of PhilanthropyFounded in 2000 with a current endowment of $1+ billion, the Lumina Foundation aims to increase high-quality post-secondary educational attainment in the United States. Their work is driven by a flagship target – Goal 2025 – which, if accomplished, would see 60 percent of Americans achieving high-quality degrees, certificates, or other post-secondary credentials by 2025.

Lumina Foundation’s Leadership Model of Philanthropy

Although the Leadership Model of Philanthropy is not a new concept and has been labelled and applied differently in the past, Lumina’s Leadership Model of Philanthropy is distinctive and can be characterized by three key attributes: focus, flexibility, and fortitude.

1) Focus – The Lumina Foundation has chosen to focus its resources to redress a single issue: college access and success among low-income, first generation and underserved populations. Foundations, especially those with large endowments, do not always restrict their aspirations to a singular mission, opting instead to divide their attention to multiple causes.

The Lumina Foundation champions the pursuit of one objective because it compels transparency, emphasizes scale, mandates measurement, and encourages refinement. The idea of not spreading oneself too thin should serve as a model for smaller philanthropic organizations that do not have the financial prowess of mega-foundations such as Ford, Carnegie, or Rockefeller or whose assets are dwarfed by the endowment sizes of new mega-philanthropies, such the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

2) Flexibility – This second attribute of the Leadership Model of Philanthropy enables the Lunima Foundation to engender meaningful change. For the Lumina Foundation, flexibility means a myriad of actions ranging from encouraging and facilitating multi-stakeholder dialogue, fostering out-of-the-box thinking, allowing staff to share expertise, and ensuring the CEO actively participates in spreading the Foundation’s mission.

Though setting a single goal may seem static from the outside, it permits the Lumina Foundation a greater degree of flexibility within a well-defined operational framework. It is important to note that for the Lumina Foundation, the definition of flexibility goes beyond traditional boundaries of the foundation as the wealthy financier dictating solutions. Flexibility should be accompanied by a healthy dose of self-awareness that guides a foundation’s understanding of knowing when to lead, and when to follow. Strength in numbers, rather than leadership for leadership’s sake, has been proven to be an effective accelerator for achieving philanthropic goals.

3) Fortitude –  Lastly, foundations must possess fortitude. The Leadership Model of Philanthropy reminds the philanthropic community that foundations operate within a “privileged space” and that this privilege ought not to be taken lightly. The Lumina Foundation makes an impassioned call to action for foundations to be proactive, to effect systemic change, and to take risks.

S. Sutton & Associates Inc. helps navigate through potential pitfalls

While there is much to celebrate about Lumina’s back-to-basics stance on philanthropy, foundations would be wise not to let their mission statements or goals turn into dogma.

S. Sutton & Associates Inc. can help philanthropic organizations navigate the potential pitfalls of a well-meaning strategy that may not always address the root cause of the solution they are seeking. In Lumina’s case, the pursuit of a single, measurable goal is not without negative historical precedents. Similar cases of single-minded pursuits gone awry are not infrequent, but transformative philanthropy is rooted in taking risks.

Expertise in Philanthropic Governance

With its deep expertise in philanthropic governance issues, S. Sutton & Associates Inc. reminds philanthropists that the leadership concept of being first among equals should not come at the cost of continued and enhanced collaboration with other funders in the field, especially in the pursuit of meeting a challenging goal.


To be successful, philanthropy has to look at the present as well as the future. Forward-thinking is especially important in retaining talent and making prudent investment decisions. S. Sutton & Associates Inc. advises philanthropists and their charitable vehicles regarding strategic planning and effective social and financial impact to enable them to find and implement their next significant, path-breaking objective.

Fundraising Campaigns & Strategic Planning Insights

Emerging Trends Shape the Donor’s Perception and Approach

The changing philanthropic landscape affects the way donors perceive and approach giving. The Future of Philanthropy, a report based on a survey of more than 3,200 people who itemized charitable giving for tax purposes, explores how personal giving has evolved and how the future of philanthropy may evolve based on changing perceptions and generational shifts.

Key findings of the report include that donors identify a wide range of social problems, particularly health and hunger, as key social priorities. Giving, however, is seen as just one element in solving these persistent problems. Only three-quarters are somewhat optimistic that their giving can solve the issues most important to them. This tempered response reflects donors’ motivations for giving as well as their perceptions of the complex framework required for social change.

Trends Shaping Donor Giving

Trends shaping donors’ approaches to giving include transparency, technology and evolving attitudes toward wealth. Donors have a more results-focused approach to philanthropy with 41% saying they have changed their giving due to increased knowledge about nonprofit effectiveness. Technological advances that provide tools for researching and funding charitable projects have influenced 27% of donors to change their approach to giving. A smaller, but still significant, number indicates that trends related to charitable planning, such as donating one’s wealth to charity rather than passing it down to family, have affected their giving.

Who do donors see as key changemakers in society? Nonprofits and public-private partnerships are seen as the most likely to develop real solutions. But donors also believe that religious institutions, universities, businesses and social enterprises have a role to play in solving society’s challenges. Business and individual donors are the two groups that donors think should do more to promote change.

Comparing Generational Differences Transforming Philanthropy

From the table below, you will notice that Millennials share opinions with Baby Boomers on the greatest society challenges (also the top three issues based on the report), but they differ in almost every other respect.

Born 1981 – 2000
Baby Boomers
Born 1946 – 1964

Most are at early stages in their careers or still at school
Most are approaching or in retirement
Est. median charitable giving:$1000
Est. median charitable giving:
56% say their giving is
more spontaneous
72% say their giving is
more planned
Millennials are likely to say their
giving offers a meaningful difference
Baby Boomers are likely to say
giving is part of their personal values or the organization is important to them
43% say trends (three or more)
influence giving
23% say trends (three or more)
influence giving
Millennials will take a global approach
as they grew up in an interconnected
world of travel and global awareness
Baby Boomers are likely to focus
on domestic issues more than international
Top 3 issuesAccess to basic health services (35%)Developing treatment or cures for a disease (34%)Hunger and access to nutritious food (33%)
Top 3 issuesHunger and access to nutritious food (42%)Developing treatment or cures for a disease (40%)Access to basic health services (33%)

Look for the next email from S. Sutton & Associates Inc. in two weeks’ time for more updates and information about philanthropy. We look forward to staying connected and would also love to hear from you! Get in touch and let’s see how we can work together to realize your philanthropic potential.

Insights Proposal Writing

Know Thy Donor —A Proposal Primer

Colleagues in the fundraising industry often ask about trends in proposal writing. What’s new? What are best practices? My answer is that the best proposal is the one that resonates for a particular donor at a particular moment in time. I’ve written a dense, single-space 30-page proposal for $1 million. A two pager with graphics for $7 million. I’ve also “written” a four page PowerPoint presentation that was almost entirely illustrations and photographs for a $100 million ask.

So how do you know what to prepare? It’s the oldest rule—know your audience. Your most important conversations are with the fundraiser (if that’s not you) and with the person affiliated with your organization who knows the donor best. Through these conversations, you are trying to understand the dynamics behind this ask—are you testing the waters with someone new or re-engaging a loyal supporter? What is the basis for thinking that they’re interested in supporting this area? Is the donor a detail person or an overview type? Do they know the topic well or is it new to them? What is their educational level and their facility with English? Have they expressed any opinions related to this ask?

The risks of proceeding without this kind of context are legion. Say, for instance, you’re asking a donor to build on previous support for an initiative with which they’ve been closely involved. The writer may dig out a previous proposal and revamp it, preserving lots of “beginner’s guide” type language explaining what the initiative is all about. To the donor, this could feel like a slap in the face. They might feel like their involvement and the knowledge and relationships they’ve built have been discounted. In an instant, they go from thinking they’re perceived as a valued partner to feeling like an ATM. What you want to do instead is acknowledge the relationship and their advanced knowledge. Emphasize how much their involvement and interest—not just their money—has been a boost. Reiterate what you’ve been able to accomplish together and that you’re going to them again before anybody else because they are your champion.

The opposite situation holds similar perils. Perhaps your prospect has never given to this area and as far as you know, is not particularly knowledgeable about it. This is a moment where it’s especially important not to be cowed by the subject matter experts and include a lot of impenetrable jargon. Because while the donor could simply be bored and uninspired as they slog through your proposal, the reaction could be much worse. They may feel actively annoyed that you’ve made little apparent effort to render the information into something engaging and relevant. Worse still, they may feel stupid and alienated—because by breezily including very dense, specialized language, you’re implying that everybody should understand it with little difficulty. In each case, you’ve hurt the relationship and that is a very bad thing in fundraising.

You may have noticed that nowhere, so far, have I talked about researching the details of the initiative itself for which you’re trying to raise funds. This information is key, obviously, but as far as proposal writing goes, it’s the easy part. Facts are easy. The hard part is the writerly task of presenting the information in a manner that is most impactful and resonant for a particular donor at a particular stage of the solicitation. This task of shaping information into a narrative and navigating through approvals—especially for those who don’t do a lot of writing—is a whole different animal and a topic for another day!

Is your nonprofit getting ready for its next ask? Let S. Sutton & Associates Inc. help you with your proposal. Contact us today so we can be your guides and provide you with the right roadmap and the right experts!

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