How a Proposal Becomes a Grant

Source: Giving Forum Summer 2011

By Kerrie Blevins, Patrick and Aimee Butler Family Foundation and Private Philanthropy Services

There's an old adage in the field of philanthropy that if you know one foundation, you know one foundation. I have worked in the field for almost 15 years, as director of the Patrick and Aimee Butler Family Foundation and as consultant and trainer to several other private foundations, and my experience tells me in some ways this adage is true.

Each foundation I've worked with has its own history, mission, values, giving priorities and procedures. This diversity of giving interests and approaches allows for many community needs and issues to receive attention and financial support.

But for grantseekers, this can be challenging. I know because I communicate with hundreds of nonprofit staff members who are trying to understand how their organization can successfully receive support. To many of them, the grantmaking process seems mysterious and arbitrary.

While no single foundation's procedures represent the universe of grantmaking processes, a look inside the Butler Family Foundation may shed some light on how a proposal becomes a grant at one private foundation.

Butler grants approximately $3 million a year in the areas of arts, environment, human services and support of nonprofit capacity building and social justice community funds. Most of our grant dollars are distributed through our Community Grants program, one of the foundation's three giving initiatives.

In any given year, it's not unusual for the foundation to receive four times as many applications as we have funds available to grant. Given this reality, how does Butler decide what to fund?

Our process for reviewing Community Grants proposals is illustrated above in Figure A.

Key Tips

Keep these points in mind when applying to Butler and other private foundations:

Know the grant deadline: Is the deadline rolling or firm? Is it a postmark deadline or received-by date? These details are the gateway to receiving consideration.

Visit the foundation's website: While there are several great secondary resources, such as the Minnesota Council on Foundations' Minnesota Grantmakers Online (MGO) database, the foundation's website is the best source of information on its own grantmaking.

Be clear about your fit with the foundation's funding interests: The foundation intentionally sets its funding priorities, geographic limits and types of support (for instance, general operating, program or capital). We do not consider proposals outside our giving areas.

At Butler, I am available to respond to pre-application inquiries to help grantseekers assess their fit with our interests. It's important to note, however, that many foundations don't have the capacity or willingness to provide this pre-application guidance.

Understand that foundations have internal considerations: Applicants must first and foremost fit the foundation's grant guidelines and follow application procedures. But the foundation may also need to consider how many grant dollars are available, whether existing funding relationships will be renewed, and other factors before entering into new relationships.

Organizations that progress through Butler's initial screening process will receive a full review that includes: analyzing the proposal submitted, with an emphasis on financial analysis; reviewing the foundation's history with the applicant; visiting websites and conducting internet research; and conducting a site visit.

Organizations that rise to the top are those that not only respond to important social needs and demonstrate programmatic strength, but are well managed, financially healthy and have strong board and staff leadership (see Figure B).

My job, as foundation director for Butler, is to evaluate each proposal by asking many crucial questions, such as those in the accompanying box "Answer These Questions," and then make funding recommendations to Butler's board of trustees. Sometimes I recommend funding at the full amount or no funding at all. More often, however, I recommend partial funding or additional assistance for capacity building and other support.

With all recommendations, I seek to make a strong case for the organizations that I feel best reflect the foundation's interests and demonstrate the program and organizational capacity to succeed at our mutual goals of community change and betterment. The final decision regarding funding rests with the board of trustees.

While this is a glimpse at the practices of just the Butler Foundation, I think you'll find commonality with many foundations: a commitment to purpose and mission, intentionality in practices, and desire to invest in strong partner organizations.

Answer These Questions When Evaluating Grant Proposals

Programs and Past Performance

  • What community need or issue is the organization addressing?
  • What evidence of community need is presented?
  • How will the organization address the need?
  • What experience or special capacity does the organization have to address the need?
  • Is the project timeline feasible?
  • Is the organization using promising practices from the field?
  • How successful has this organization been in implementing programs in the past?

Board and Staff Capacity

  • Is the board so large or so small it would be a challenge to exercise its legal and fiduciary responsibilities?
  • Does any board member hold more than one officer position?
  • Do staff serve on the board? In what capacity? Is the board sufficiently diverse ethnically, professionally, etc.?
  • What is each staff member's qualifications for his/her role in the organization?

Financial Health and Budget

  • Are the budgets complete, and are revenue and expenses reasonable and feasible?
  • Does the budget support the activities outlined in the program description? Does it all make common sense?
  • How does the current budget compare to past actual expenditures?
  • Are indirect costs a reasonable percentage of the total?
  • What is the past ratio of overhead to program expenses?
  • Can the organization support its core operating needs, as well as projects and initiatives?
  • What is the organization's overall financial status? Are assets and cash sufficient for operations?
  • Is there a pattern of generating a surplus or operating with a deficit?
  • Does the organization have reliable, diverse funding sources?
  • Can the organization achieve its fundraising goals based on past performance and board and staff capability?
  • Is it clear from the plan what funding is already committed and what is pending?

Source: "Making Sound Funding Decisions," Kerrie Blevins, Private Philanthropy Services


PDF icon Full Summer 2011 Giving Forum.pdf3.27 MB