Many foundations prefer or even require grant-seeking nonprofits to submit an LOI, or Letter of Inquiry, before sending a complete proposal.
The LOI allows the foundation to quickly screen potential candidates for funding, making sure that they do not waste time on ill-conceived ideas or those that do not fit with the foundation's mission. For you, the nonprofit, the LOI is a way to get an invitation from the foundation to submit a complete proposal. Your goal is to get a call from the staff at the foundation, asking for more.
Martin Teitel, foundation veteran and author of Thank You for Submitting Your Proposal, provides these tips to writing a good LOI:
- If the foundation has published guidelines for an LOI, follow them exactly. These might be called suggestions or guidelines rather than rules. In any case, follow them precisely. Not doing so ensures that your LOI will not get very far in the foundation's screening process.
- Type "Letter of Inquiry" at the top of your letter. LOIs receive a very quick initial screening to weed out irrelevant mail. It is helpful if you make it plain that you are submitting an LOI right from the get go.
- A typical LOI is three pages long, plus a budget, and includes the following:
- A brief and "catchy" title. The title should catch the attention of the reader and draw him into continuing.
- A one- or two-sentence summary of your project. Make it concise, compelling, and clear. The summary should:
- Answer the question, "What are we doing?" Teitel suggests that you get a few people together and ask this question, and see what you come up with.
- Receive your utmost attention. Put the most effort into writing the first sentence of the summary. Write and rewrite it.
- Strike a tone suitable to the foundation's interests. Learn from, but don't copy professional marketers. Use interesting, even riveting prose, but don't write as though you are selling soap. Even though you want the foundation to "buy" your idea, your ultimate goal is a partnership with the foundation to address a need.
- Do not use buzzwords that make unrealistic claims or general, unverifiable, statements. Don't use "unique," "cutting edge," or "raises awareness." Don't use flowery adjectives and vague generalities.
- Include facts, concrete verbs, and sentences that show action. Emulate good journalistic writing. Don't manipulate, exhort or lecture the reader.
- An explanation of the issue you are addressing and how you will do it.
- A description of your organization.
- A budget. This may or may not be required. Refer to the foundation's instructions.
- Make the LOI short and succinct. Although the LOI is a mini- proposal, do not just chop down your proposal to fit on three pages. The LOI should capture the essence of your proposal briefly but powerfully. Do not just cut and paste from a proposal, nor let your enthusiasm for your cause result in pages and pages of information.
Teitel suggests that you keep in mind that your goal is to have a proposal invited. Write that on a post-it note and stick it on your computer as you work. Teitel says, "Every single word in your Letter of Inquiry needs to be held up to this test....Don't use the LOI to make grand-scale points about the state of the world, show your erudition or wit, or argue the fascinating minutiae of soccer field care."
Your LOI can make or break your relationship with a foundation. It will only get you in the door, but that is the most important step of all.