How to Develop Powerful Funding Proposals for Nonprofit Donors

Nonprofit organizations and universities usually rely on two main sources of funding: public grants and private donations. Public grants usually draw straightforward proposals. Usually, the grantor issues an RFP or other notice of funding that includes instructions about what information they want, and sometimes, what format the information should be in. Private donations are harder to apply for because they lack a formalized process.

Create Creative Funding Solutions for Private Donors

Don’t let the lack of structure turn you off. Private donors rarely provide structured criteria, or may not be allowed to publicize it. While donors may state values or outcomes important to them, or identify programs or populations they’d like to help, the organization must translate that vision into concrete funding opportunities. View this as an opportunity.

Development and institutional advancement staff are responsible for creatively translating donor goals to match organizational goals. Any development officer who has seen a donor through to the proposal stage will have stories about rejected funding opportunities, even when the donor was passionate about the organization and eager to give. Often, it has nothing to do with the money involved or the donor’s level of commitment. If the opportunity isn’t inspiring, it’s likely unfunded. Fortunately, there are things you can do when developing and writing proposals to increase the odds of getting to “yes.”

1.      Look for unconventional funding opportunities at all levels of the organization.

Showing that funding opportunities are interesting or novel can be important in fundraising. The rarer and more engaging an initiative is, the more likely it is to attract donors. Whether it’s the thrill of being involved in something new or the social clout that comes from supporting the unconventional, many people get excited about attaching their money—and their name—to projects people will talk about.

Don’t limit yourself to six- or seven-figure donations or agency-wide programs; try thinking small instead. Funding is not reserved for grand or groundbreaking work; it just must serve a purpose. Talk to colleagues on other teams, grantees, and members of the communities you serve. What needs seem unlikely to be mentioned in a proposal? What problems are they facing that were previously overlooked?

An example from a university: A specific department needed to produce recorded lectures that included live experiments but didn’t have a space set up to accommodate both lab work and filming. With a donation of a few thousand dollars, they converted an older classroom into the safe, usable space they needed. They also shared their new resources with faculty and students in other departments, which helped with projects that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible.

2.      Create tiered or progressive proposals.

Every donation, no matter how small, makes a difference. But some donors can give more than others. One way to address this—and reduce the burden on staff tasked with developing funding opportunities—is to create tiered proposals.

Again, using university fundraising as an example, imagine raising money to support the anthropology department, with a focus on research. Your funding opportunities might look like this:

Tier 1: Student Field Research Grants -- $6,000
Tier 2: Faculty Field Research Grants -- $15,000
Tier 3: Graduate Student Dissertation Stipend -- $25,000
Tier 4: Endowed Graduate Fellowship -- $100,000 (annually)
Tier 5: Endowed Faculty Chair -- $600,000 (annually)

Creating tiers of funding to support a single program or goal lets more people contribute in a way that feels important, which increases donation numbers and the overall amount raised. It’s an effective strategy for supporting multi-year initiatives. It also charts a path for donors interested in making multiple donations or increasing their giving over time. Finally, the program feels customized, which excites and inspires, even if the initiative isn’t new or novel.

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3.      Describe specific ways the donor’s money will affect not only the organization, but the communities it serves.

It’s futile to try to get donors excited about abstract ideas. People like to envision the impact of their giving, however large or small. Specifically describe how a donor’s money will be used and how it will contribute to positive outcomes for the organization and the communities it serves.

A benefit of this approach is that it can help make less glamorous (but critical) funding opportunities—such as physical plant and property (PPP)—more appealing. Donors might not get excited about funding a new HVAC system for at-risk youth centers, but if you highlight the impact of clean air on student health, inclusion for disabled students, and related cost savings that will enable future benefits, the program becomes inspiring.

Even if you’re trying to raise money for a general fund or operating budget, you can make them feel real and relatable by discussing specifics. Consider spotlighting teams or departments the money will support, and how their work contributes to the company mission. Tap into personal stories: What’s the underlying need behind the fundraiser or proposal and how will the money help meet it? Are there specific themes you can talk about that describe the goals of your initiative? You could also share examples of other organizations or programs you’d like to emulate. Anything you can do to help a donor visualize what success looks like and how their support can get you there makes a “yes” more likely.

4.      Keep focus on the work, not the wordiness.

Once you’ve crafted your pitch, make sure your proposal impresses your donors. Make sure your proposal isn’t so wordy that it overwhelms the reader or distracts them from your ask. Using clear, concise language will make your proposal easier to digest, which makes it easier for the donor to visualize the goal. It also shows competence and organization, which make it easier for the donor to trust that you’ll execute your initiatives well, and that their money is in safe hands. Crisp writing shows that you’re intelligent, that you care about doing a good job, and that you’re focused. A sophisticated editing tool like WordRake can make the difference. Try it free for 7 days.

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