To protect the interests of the university and its relationships, all fundraising efforts must be coordinated through Development and Alumni Relations. Before contacting a funder or CFR staff, faculty members must discuss potential projects and sources of support with their department chair and dean. Faculty should also solicit the support of their director of development, where applicable, to ensure an internally coordinated approach. The CFR staff will work with the director of development and faculty members to design a successful fundraising initiative.
1. Identifying and defining critical aspects of the project
2. Determining how VCU will process your funding request and making the appropriate university contacts
3. Identifying and compiling a list of potential funders
4. Contacting and cultivating a funder
5. Preparing a letter of intent or proposal
6. After the proposal is submitted
7. Reporting and stewardship
The essential first step in any successful fund-seeking endeavor is to organize your thoughts on paper. Carefully define the following items:
- Primary contact information for principal investigator and collaborators.
- Description of project and its principal goal (be sure to review “Foundation fundamentals” for tips on developing a fundable project).
- Proposed objectives, including intervention or research methodology.
- Rationale for proposed activities and how it relates to what others are doing (why what you propose to do is important and unique).
- Expected outcomes – immediate and long term.
- Potential collaborators (interdisciplinary and outside the organization).
- Institution’s qualifications and personnel (why are you uniquely qualified to do this work?).
- Proposed timetable.
- Estimated budget, including amount requested from each funder and other anticipated sources of support.
- Plans for evaluation and dissemination of findings.
- Plans for sustaining (or developing) project after expenditure of requested funds.
2. Determining how VCU will process your funding request and making the appropriate university contacts
Review the guidelines for gifts and grants to determine what university personnel need to participate in the preparation of your funding request.
A sponsored project is any externally funded research or scholarly activity that has a defined scope of work and set of objectives that provides a basis for accountability and sponsor expectations. All projects determined to be sponsored projects must be processed through the Office of Sponsored Programs, which is housed in the Office of Research. OSP is Virginia Commonwealth University’s office authorized to submit research proposals and receive awards from federal, state and nonprofit sources on behalf of the university. OSP is also the official contact for the university on administrative award-related matters. The deadline for delivering proposals to OSP is three days before the proposal is due to the sponsor.
Alternatively, the CFR office is the appropriate contact for philanthropic grants that are eligible to be processed as gifts to the university. Questions regarding whether a proposal or an award is a gift or a sponsored project should be directed to your school’s dean or to the CFR staff. Note that at any given time, members of the university’s development staff may have outstanding requests to local and national corporations and foundations so it is critical that you make contact with CFR staff before contacting a foundation or corporation for funding. This step will help ensure that your efforts are coordinated with other approaches by VCU.
The CFR staff has worked closely with Office of Prospect Research and Tracking to develop a list of online resources to assist you in your search for a funder. View resources.
Alternatively, if you are seeking sponsored research support, VCU’s Office of Research maintains an accessible page with a number of suggested resources and links for accessing several of the subscription-based databases that publish information on funders and funding opportunities, including internal sources, state and federal sources and some nonprofits.
When compiling a list of potential funders it is important to consider the following:
- Examine the grantmaker’s:
- Funding priorities
- Areas of interest
- Geographical restrictions
- Political leanings
- Types of support and restrictions (i.e., research, operating, endowment, capital campaigns)
- Grantmaking patterns (review the foundation’s IRS 990 PF statements)
- Size of grants
- Format of initial contact (phone, e-mail, mail, etc.) and the most appropriate contact person
- Does the grant-maker accept unsolicited proposals or does it only fund preselected or invited applicants? What is your or the university’s relationship to the funder, if any? (Does the funder hire VCU graduates, does it support sponsored research projects at VCU, has it made any previous gifts to VCU, do you or any of your colleagues know anyone who works for/with this funder?) The CFR office can help answer many of these questions.
- Is the foundation committed to its funding priorities or is it in a state of flux (the president and/or executive director’s letters in annual reports and on the Web site will often reveal this standing)?
- How does this funder think problems are best solved (through direct service, research, by educating policymakers)?
- Does the funder operate its own programs and seek collaborators?
- Does the funder have an open solicitation policy or are all requests funneled through RFPs?
- How are grant awards determined (through peer review, by a board of directors, by a philanthropy committee, by program staff)?
- Does the funder have any other restrictions that might prohibit you from being considered (i.e., some funders do not provide support to state institutions)?
After you have developed a list of funders and have narrowed your list to those with interest and capacity to fund your project, contact the CFR staff for recommendations on an overall strategy. First be sure, however, that you have the support of your chair, dean and your development officer. If you are a development officer at VCU, you will need to declare your interest in contacting this funder to the CFR staff so the university can avoid conflicts.
After you have done your research, use the guidelines below to prepare a description of your project, emphasizing points related to the foundation’s stated interests. If you have questions that are not answered on the funder’s Web site or by the CFR staff, call the program officer and listen carefully to the response. If you plan to call the funder directly, you will need to be prepared to discuss your project succinctly and with ease. Make a list of brief questions you might want to ask the funder but be careful not to ask questions that have been addressed on the funder’s Web site or in its literature. Suggested questions appear below:
- Does this project fall within your funding priorities? If not, what would make it do so?
- Do you fund the type of project we are proposing?
- Do you typically fund projects in this geographical area? Would you consider doing so?
- What size or type of award would you expect your foundation/corporation to give to a project of this type? Only ask this question if the answer is not made clear in the guidelines of the RFP. The answer will give you a funding range.
- Do you know anyone else who would be interested in this project?
- Are there other opportunities for funding in subsequent years for this project?
- Are there any special criteria for making awards beyond what is listed in your guidelines?
Some funders require applicants to submit a letter of intent/letter of inquiry or a preproposal as the first step in the process; however, other funders will allow submission of a full proposal right away. As the preparation of these documents takes time, carefully review guidelines provided by the funder and consider your audience (it could range from an expert panel to a group of educated generalists or business people). Then write clearly and with the assumption that at least some portion of your proposal will be read by nonexperts (unless the funder utilizes a peer review process).
If you are given no specific guidelines, most proposals should include:
- Executive summary
- Background of the institution and project
- Discussion of why the project should be pursued (taking into account its value to society, to academe or your department, to some set of constituents, and to the mission of the funder)
- Description of what will take place and who will carry out the work
- Set of expectations and how they will be evaluated
A letter of intent (also known as a letter of inquiry, a query letter, a preproposal or a concept paper) allows the reviewer to quickly assess the match between the foundation’s interests and the proposed project. If the reviewer determines that it is a good match, he or she can request a more complete description in the form of a full proposal. In fact, “proposals not accepted” does not necessarily mean that a letter of inquiry is out of order. If the reviewer likes what he or she reads, you will be invited to submit a full proposal.
When crafting a letter of intent, avoid jargon and subjective statements that cannot be supported by facts. Write as if you are making a logical, persuasive argument based on need and capacity to meet that need. A letter of inquiry is not a vague exploration of an idea but a concise, well-crafted overview of the need for the project, the project itself and the goals it will accomplish. Letters of inquiry generally are limited to two-to-three pages; oftentimes, the foundation will indicate a page limit, which should be respected.
Unless otherwise instructed by the funder, the letter of inquiry normally includes:
- This serves as your summary statement, and it should be able to stand alone. By reading this paragraph, the reviewer should know, even if they read nothing else, what you want to do. Make it clear what actions you want the reader to take. Answer the following: Who wants to do what? How much is being requested? Is this a portion of a larger project cost? Over what period of time is money being requested?
- Example: “The School of Nursing at Virginia Commonwealth University seeks support for developing an innovative undergraduate and graduate curriculum in psychiatric mental health nursing that will prepare expert nurse clinicians in the delivery of mental health services to at-risk adolescents in the community setting. We are requesting $87,000 over a two-year period.”
- Indicate whether you are responding to an RFP (request for proposals) or make the connection between the foundation’s interest and your project.
- Be succinct, as later portions of the letter will allow you to elaborate on the rationale and the specific project.
Statement of need (one to two paragraphs)
- This section answers the “why” of the project.
- Explain what issue you are addressing.
- Explain why you have chosen to respond to this set of issues in the way that you have.
- State briefly why this matters in the area in which you will be working.
- Note who benefits and how they will benefit. Perhaps also mention what is likely to happen if your project is not carried out (will things stay the same, will they get worse, who will not be assisted/served?).
- Use statistics or data to document the stated need.
Project activity (this will be the bulk of your letter)
- This section answers the “what” and “how” of the project. State your goal(s) and objectives.
- Give a general overview of the activities involved.
- Highlight why your approach is novel and deserving of the special attention that funding implies.
- Indicate if there will be collaboration with other organizations and define their roles. Be specific about who does what. If you do mention collaborators, make sure you have gotten buy-in from them already.
Outcomes and sustainability (one to two paragraphs; before or after the discussion of activities)
- State the specific outcomes to be achieved.
- Indicate how evaluation is part of the project (how will you know you’ve achieved these outcomes?).
- Funders do not like to be the sole source of support for a project. Help the reader understand how the project will be sustained financially after the grant runs out.
Credentials (one to two paragraphs)
- Demonstrate why your institution or your staff is best equipped to carry out this activity. Help the reader understand how/why you are uniquely qualified to do this work.
- Include historical background about the institution that speaks to the role of this project in the overall mission and vision of the university. How does your project relate to the themes outlined in VCU 2020?
- Indicate awards, rankings and other tangible measures that set you apart from your peers.
Budget and budget narrative (one to two paragraphs)
- State the total project cost and the portion of the total requested from the foundation. Indicate broad categories of activities to be funded in a line-item format.
- Include other sources of funding, both cash and in-kind, especially what VCU and others will contribute. Do not overlook the value of in-kind contributions, including those of your collaborators.
Closing (one paragraph)
- Offer to provide any additional information the foundation might need.
- Give a contact name and information for foundation follow-up. Indicate if one person is the administrative contact and another is the program contact.
- Express appreciation for the reader’s attention or the opportunity to submit if it is in response to an RFP.
- Ask, “Can we submit a full proposal?” and have the highest-ranking person sign.
As you prepare your proposal, there are several things to consider:
Will your proposal be reviewed by a program officer or a review committee? Will the reader be familiar with your discipline such that academic or scientific language is expected and understood? Or should you write for the “educated layperson”?
Generally, writing to a foundation calls for a different style than writing for the government, a corporation or an individual. You are building a nonemotional case based on proven need and innovative solutions. Keep your discussion of why you are doing what you propose to do separate from how you will do it.
Cover letters should be used to demonstrate institutional support and should be signed by a top-ranking official in your department or school, or for very high-profile projects, by the university president. In one page, the letter should emphasize the main goal of the project and explain how this project is part of a larger body of work being carried out either at VCU or the Richmond community and beyond.Proposal contents
Generally, the foundation will give you a template or some indication of what questions should be addressed in the proposal. However, in absence of specific questions, basic proposals are often laid out as follows:
- Should be able to stand alone and should be one page.
- Use the highlights (or topic sentence) from each section of the proposal.
- Answer what will be done, by whom, for what purpose, for how long, at what cost, what are the outcomes and who will benefit.
- Make it clear what you are asking the foundation to do.
Statement of need
- What is the issue you are addressing and why does it matter?
- Why is what you propose necessary and what will happen if your project is not carried out?
- Who benefits? Make sure you can indicate the public good achieved.
- Why hasn’t this issue been addressed sufficiently in the past? Who else is working in this field, what have they done and why wasn’t that enough? Demonstrate your knowledge of the field.
- Assure that there is no duplication of other work. However, if you are seeking to replicate another’s work in a new environment or with a different population, that’s legitimate.
- Use statistics or data to document your stated need. Where available, use local statistics to address a local problem.
Project activity and outcomes
- Why did you choose to address the issue in this way? If there are other approaches, why aren’t they being utilized?
- What are your goals? What are the measurable outcomes you will achieved?
- What are the specific activities involved? Who will do them? How?
- Present a timeline of activities.
- Why is your organization the best one to do what you propose to do?
- Assure the potential funder that there is a way to know whether you achieved your goal.
- Make sure you have project goals and objectives that are truly measurable, otherwise you will not be able to design an evaluation.
- State the goal of evaluation. What do you hope to learn, prove or demonstrate?
- Measure each project objective.
- Describe your evaluation methodology precisely. You can mix methodologies depending upon the objective being measured. Be creative; not everything is measured with a survey.
- Depending on the project, an evaluation can examine either or both process and product.
- Evaluations can be quantitative, qualitative or both.
- It is a good idea to build in evaluation throughout the life of the project so that you can have good information for making midcourse corrections if necessary.
- Think about what can be learned from your evaluation and with whom you want to share the information. Some parts of what you learn may be for internal uses only, but much can be shared with your peers. Foundations like their grants to have a life beyond the single grantee.
- Specify who will conduct your evaluation: project personnel or outsiders or both.
- Utilize on-campus resources to design your evaluation or to gain assessment tools. Two places that might be of help to you are your dean’s office and the Survey Evaluation Research Lab.
- When you are done describing your evaluation goals and methodologies, you should have answered this question: How will you know that you did what you said you would do?
- Dissemination should be linked to your project goals and objectives. For example, if you are trying to affect policy, your dissemination plan should target policymakers, media and affected populations.
- Be creative; sending an article to a professional journal is only one of many options. Consider op-ed pieces to newspapers or articles to more popular periodicals, conference presentations, community outreach activities, a Web site, convening work groups of your peers, presentations to policymakers, reports, briefing papers, press releases, videos, getting an interview on your local radio station, asking the foundation to provide an opportunity to meet with grantees doing similar work, newspaper coverage, presentations to community groups such as the chamber of commerce, listing yourself on speakers bureaus.
Budget and sustainability
- Show your budget in table form and use a budget narrative to explain each item.
- Include other sources of funding, both cash and in-kind. Do not overlook the value of in-kind contributions, including those of your collaborators.
- Indicate how the project will be funded after the grant.
- Foundations want to change the world for the better, but do not have the resources to meet all needs. Show them how far their investment will go with your project and how many people you will help.
- Foundations want to be associated with new, cutting-edge work, especially if it becomes a standard by which others operate or if it changes policy in a way that supports their targeted constituencies and issues. Indicate how what you propose is a novel approach or one that shows exciting promise.
- Work that will be done collaboratively with other parts of the university or with public schools, local government, nonprofit and community groups and/or with business is always attractive.
- Attractive projects are inclusive of those you seek to help, either in planning, directing or execution.
- The university best shows the value it places on a project by the degree to which it tries to make it happen, so take care to show all the ways that VCU has and will help to make this work happen.
- Foundations want their investments to go as far as possible. Be sure to indicate how the outcomes of your work are replicable so many others might benefit.
- Indicate whether the foundation grant will leverage other investments in your project.
- Demonstrate that the work will be continued after the foundation grant has ended.
- Adapted from materials prepared by Deborah S. Koch, Kochworks.
Please forward a copy of your proposal and related documents to the CFR office for inclusion in our files.
If your proposal is accepted
Be sure the CFR office also receives a copy of the award letter. CFR will obtain official university signatures required on an award by the funder and will guide you in working with the proper university foundation to create the necessary accounts, if applicable.
As the principal investigator, you are responsible for preparing any narrative reports and for coordinating submission of the financial report in a timely manner. You should familiarize yourself with the reporting and stewardship requirements of the grant and commit to meeting them in a timely manner. Any significant changes to the original grant agreement, such as a change in leadership or major delays, should be communicated to the funder as soon as possible. Contact the CFR office for advice in these negotiations.
What if your proposal is rejected?
Most funders receive many more applications than they can accept; the acceptance rate of unsolicited proposals for a major national foundation (such as Ford Foundation) may be as low as 5 percent. The closer the fit between project and foundation mission, the better the chance the project has of being funded, but there could be other reasons for rejection. Many program officers are willing to provide advice after a proposal is rejected, so a call or letter to thank them for considering the proposal, with an inquiry as to how it might be improved, might result in helpful information for a resubmission or for revision for submission to another funder. It is always useful to maintain a good institutional relationship with any funder because there will be other RFPs in the future. Finally, don’t be discouraged. Grantseekers who are very successful in obtaining external funding do not receive every grant they seek, and building a good track record at a low dollar level might lead to greater success in the future.
An important part of successful grantseeking is the stewardship process that happens after a grant is awarded. Most funders will require at least an annual report updating them on how the money was spent and what was accomplished. In most cases, the funder will provide details about the type of report they require, but when details are not provided, a standard report will include a summary page that speaks directly to the stated goals and objectives and how your project is progressing toward them. It should also include a section on future plans and what is left to be accomplished and a financial report including a budget narrative discussing any large over- or under-expenditures.
Additionally, consider the following tips when crafting your reports:
- Don’t presume that the person reading the report is immediately familiar with your project. Clearly itemize goals and objectives from the original proposal and respond with a status report on each.
- State accomplishments in a very concrete manner and avoid grand statements. A short, positive story that illustrates the impact of the project, however, is acceptable and appropriate.
- State who benefited from the activity, directly or indirectly.
- Note unexpected bonuses resulting from your project activity. Conversely, if you have suffered unexpected setbacks or issues, an annual report is not the time to notify the funder of problems with the grant. If you are experiencing significant problems that will prevent you from doing what you proposed to do, you should contact your funder when the problems arise and provide them with a proposed solution. Then, seek its blessing on your alternative solution and keep it updated on its progress.
- Some foundations are particularly interested in how evaluation of the project was conducted. Give details on the evaluations you conducted and, if appropriate, provide snapshots of relevant data.
- Talk about sustainability of the activity (if appropriate), especially if other sources of funding ensued or if the university institutionalized any part of this project (i.e., made it part of the institutional budget).
- Discuss dissemination of information about the project. What lessons were shared with whom? In what way were these lessons or findings communicated?
- Highlight any spin-off benefits or similar projects modeled after your project.
- If something did not work as expected, you should explore that in your report. Add some thoughts as to why that happened and if feasible, how one might achieve a preferred outcome.
- Funders use reports to determine where they made good investments and where they did not. In short, your report will inform their future grantmaking, so a clear and thorough report is not only good stewardship but it also could impact the way that this funder distributes resources in the future.
- If you are creating a final report at the conclusion of the project, be sure to report on the whole project and not just the final year of work.