Asking for funding is a process, starting with some very basic questions about whether your project and the funder are apt to be a good match. Start with the following considerations before requesting funding, then think carefully about what to ask for and how to make that ask.
Look for a good match
- Investigate the funder’s typical grant amount for an organization of your size and projected outcomes.
- Explore how your project might help the funder achieve their own goals. Where do your missions and ideologies overlap? Where are they additive? Where do they diverge?
- Define for yourself what you want out of a funder. Are you looking for quick cash or do you want a long-term relationship?
- Look at the nature of the funder. How traditional is the foundation? Do they fund outside-the-box projects? What is their risk appetite?
- Consider whether you are changing your goals, priorities, or project activities too much in order to get support based on the funder’s stated desires. Program officers (POs) will be sensitive to this and will ask probing questions to figure out if this is happening.
- Change your proposal or find a different program if the PO discourages you from pursuing your idea as part of their specific program. If they say it's not a match, listen.
- If a proposal is declined, read the reviews and talk to the PO to figure out if the project is a bad fit or if the proposal simply needs improvement.
Determine an appropriate "ask"
When you're fundraising, you want to frame a specific request to funders so they know what you're looking for. It's often called making "an ask."
An ask is a chance to get specific about what you need outside the formal funding application process or at the beginning of a relationship with a donor or investor. For example, you may make an ask in a meeting, at the end of a pitch deck, or during a phone call. You're looking for definitive feedback from the funder. Positive signals may turn into a request to submit a formal proposal to a grant-making institution. A quick "no thanks" is just as useful.
The first step in determining what to ask for is to figure out how much the foundation is likely able or willing to give.
Research the foundation’s grant-making capacity
Private foundations are governed by reporting requirements that allow us to access their balance sheets and anticipate how much they must give away each year. If you can figure out how much a private foundation holds in assets, you can roughly estimate how much it should pay in grants each year to meet its five-percent payout requirement.
Read the 990 to determine net assets
In the US, a foundation's public financial records can be found in IRS Form 990 (more simply referred to as a 990). A 990 is an informational tax form that most tax-exempt organizations must file annually. The form gives an overview of the organization's activities, governance, and detailed financial information — including its revenues, expenses, assets, and liabilities.
Most tax-exempt organizations that have gross receipts of at least $200,000 or assets worth at least $500,000 must file Form 990 annually. Some organizations, such as political organizations, churches and other religious organizations, are exempt from filing on an annual basis.
Estimate their payout requirement
A payout requirement (also known as a Minimum Distribution Requirement, or MDR) is the minimum amount that a private foundation must spend each year for charitable purposes. This amount is paid in the form of grants and the administrative cost of making grants (within certain limits).
Generally, a private foundation must meet or exceed an annual payout requirement of five percent of the average market value of its net investment assets in order to avoid paying excise taxes.
By knowing how much a private foundation holds in assets, you can roughly estimate how much it should pay in grants each year to meet its payout requirement. This can help you determine what to ask for. For example, $1 million is a big ask of a foundation with an annual payout requirement of $10 million (that grant alone would constitute 10 percent of their whole budget). A $1 million ask would be much more reasonable to make to a foundation that has a payout requirement of $100 million.
Research previous grants
Many foundations will publish lists of the grants they’ve made in the past. An easy way to get a sense of the range of funding they tend to give is to look at this list and estimate where you’d fit in.
Talk to grantees to understand the foundation’s process
Details about the process inside a foundation can help shape your ask. For example, some foundations have threshold dollar amount that divides larger grants from smaller grants. Under that threshold, the process involves more discretion on the part of the program officer. Above that threshold, your proposal will require a full board review process.
Decide what to ask for
- Think of the scope of your organization and be realistic about your ask in the context of the scope. Don't dwell on figuring out the most you can possibly get; communicate the amount that you actually need and how you'll spend it to achieve your goals. That said, you can always present multiple versions of an ask — a "pie in the sky" version, as well as a more realistic version.
- How much you ask for should be reasonable and justifiable. Don't intentionally low-ball because you think your desired ask won't be funded or intentionally high-ball because you want to negotiate down. Remember you are trying to work with the funder to come up with a partnership that makes sense instead of simply trying to extract wealth from them.
- Solicitations usually have a maximum size — avoid asking for exactly this amount. Doing so is a sign that you are fitting your work into the solicitation rather than defining a project and then looking for a solicitation into which it can fit.
- You don't have to ask for everything from a single funder. You can split up program priorities in segments and seek funding for each separately. Whether or not you do this will depend on how much a given funder is likely to support. If most of a foundation’s grants range between $10,000 and $50,000, asking for $200,000 probably won’t fly. If you need $200,000 to complete everything in your project, consider asking for a portion of that amount to complete a discrete portion of the work.
Know what a funder will likely ask you
You've selected a funder. Now it's time to refine your elevator pitch and make sure your pitch deck is honed to perfection. But in order to accomplish those two tasks you should really have some idea of what's likely to be asked of you. Since we don't have a crystal ball that can tell you what might be going through a funder's mind, [here is an example from one](Link to eLife piece).
Make the ask
- Lay out all your project’s needs even if you have decided not to ask for the full amount. Let the funder see the whole picture, then provide an option for them to fund a portion of it that will fit their budget better. It's helpful to think of your work with a given funder as a long-term relationship with multiple points of collaboration.
- Make it clear that you've done your research and thought carefully about how you fit in with their mission. It should be obvious you haven’t just thrown something together that matches what they’ve told you.
- Leverage funding you’ve already secured to attract new funding by asking for a match. For example, you might say “X Foundation gave us $10,000. Would Y Foundation be willing to match that amount?”
- Acknowledge risks in your proposal, especially if you also lay out ways that you envision responding to those risks.
- Read advice about how to make an ask from those who know the fundraising process well, such as Dr. Carly Strasser's personal perspective
What happens when you submit a proposal
The process that occurs after you’ve submitted a proposal differs depending on the type of funder you’re approaching. Here are some general ideas about how these processes tend to work. But keep in mind that each funding agency or foundation may have its own particular process.
(Note: most of this is specific to the National Science Foundation; other agencies are likely to have slightly different processes.)
- The PO submits the application to a panel of reviewers, whether via an in-person panel, a virtual panel, or mail-in reviews for proposals that require peer-review (which is most of them for NSF).
- The PO may ask you questions based on the reviews or may request additional material about the project, such as a draft public abstract.
- The PO makes a written recommendation to their division director (including some facts about the proposal and the reviews, and how they came to a recommendation). If the recommendation is to fund the project, the PO will provide a public abstract that describes the project at both a high level and a technical level. The division director decides.
- If the project is not funded, the PO notifies you.
- If the project is going to be funded, the proposal and decision goes to the business office, which writes up the award, negotiates with or notifies your institution, and publishes the abstract.
- You provide a draft proposal to the PO for a first pass. The program officer reads it over and decides whether or not it is a potential prospect based on the scope and priorities of the organization.
- If the PO is interested in the project, they'll usually seek a next step meant to increase the connection, such as scheduling a meeting or arranging a site visit. You will likely need to respond to various questions that aim to refine exactly how the project will run and precisely what the funding will support. The PO may say something like, "I'm interested, but what exactly are you thinking on XYZ topic?"
- Next you'll submit a more detailed proposal that elaborates and improves on the initial one, which the PO will share with their team. The team discusses the proposal, including hearing the PO’s thoughts and concerns.
- If the team is hesitant to fund, they may then brainstorm other opportunities to support the project, such as people or projects to connect you with or other foundations that may be interested.
- If the team is ready to go forward, you’ll need to submit a formal proposal in the format that the funder wants. Many organizations decide to hire a grant writer to help with this part of the process. This proposal will require a more specific budget that lays out exactly what all the money will support.
- The PO will do due-diligence on the proposal, such as corresponding with people in related fields to vet the project for feasibility.
- If the vetting process presents no problems, the PO will send the formal proposal to internal teams to make sure the messaging is right.
- Finally, the PO pitches the project to the executive director internally. The ED will dive deep into it, and accept or reject it.
- If the ED signs on, the proposal goes to the full board for approval. At this point, it's most likely going to be funded.
- Congrats! You get funding and are able to go forward with your work. Remember that you will most likely have to provide some amount of official reporting, such as monthly updates or quarterly reports. Make sure you understand your obligations to the funder.
What to do with a "no"
- Acknowledge the no. Not responding to a "no" email or communication may signal that you cannot handle feedback or that you didn't care enough about the funder. That perception may scuttle your chances of successfully seeking funding from this source in the future.
- Be open to feedback. Ask for constructive feedback to improve the proposal or idea. Read any reviews you're given. There is sometimes a consensus document that is assembled by the panel, which will say what factors were the most important to the decision-making process. Ask the PO how to interpret the reviews and whether there is other feedback they have to offer.
- Connect to their network. Ask for introductions to others in their network who might be interested in funding your work or partnering with you to accomplish your goals in other ways.