Originally published August 19, 2015

In a time when $100 million gifts are increasing in number but are still relatively rare, the John T. and Catherine D. MacArthur Foundation’s announcement that it will award a $100 million grant every three years is big news.

Foundation president Julia Stasch wrote in her recent annual report that MacArthur is streamlining its grantmaking to “work primarily through programs and projects that are larger in scale, time-limited in nature, or designed to reach specific objectives.”

As part of this new direction, a $100 million grant will be made to a single proposal that will “solve or significantly mitigate a major problem or seize a compelling opportunity.”

Does your organization have the potential to secure this transformational gift?

The principles that might cause your proposal to be selected for the MacArthur grant are the same as those that help increase the likelihood that any proposal will be funded.

Here are some essential guidelines that will distinguish your proposal from the competition and give you the chance to secure those transformational gifts.

  1. Match your proposal with the foundation’s guidelines. Make sure your proposal is for purposes consistent with the programs and priorities that the foundation indicates it will fund.
  2. Lead with amount requested, purpose, and impact. State clearly in the first sentence of the proposal how much you are asking for, for what purpose(s), and what the expected outcomes will be. For example, “This is a proposal to the ABC Foundation for a grant of $150,000, payable over three years, to enable the [name of organization] to expand its STEM education program to an additional 200 junior high school students.” Too many foundation proposals wait until two or more pages into the proposal to do this.
  3. Emphasize expected impacts and outcomes. Talk, not just about how you will spend the money, but on the specific, measurable outcomes you expect to achieve with the foundation’s grant. Address why these outcomes are important, and how you will evaluate success.
  4. Describe what will happen if something is not done about the issue you are addressing. What will happen if you can’t conduct the research, build the facility, or run the program you are proposing? What are the impacts of these consequences?
  5. Explore collaborating and leveraging opportunities. Increasingly foundations are looking with favor on proposals in which two or more nonprofit organizations collaborate on addressing a particular problem or challenge (e.g., a college or university partnering with a boys and girls club on wellness programs and activities) and/or use the requested foundation grant to leverage a specified amount of money from other funders.
  6. Don’t say that you need the money. Of course you need the money. Funders know this, and you don’t need to belabor the point. Demonstrate the need through the impact your proposed project will have and the consequences of not doing the project.
  7. Put your organization’s history and accomplishments at the end. Unless the foundation’s proposal format specifies otherwise, include information about your organization’s history and accomplishments in an appendix. Focus your proposal with what problem you want to solve, how you will do so, and the measurable impact you will have.

As you meet with foundation prospects and donors, let Ms. Stasch’s articulation of MacArthur’s new guiding principles raise your sights and inspire your proposals.

“Be bolder and aim higher. Embrace independent, even unconventional, thinking. Act with greater urgency, even as we remain patient for the fruits of real, lasting change. Be more open, curious, and experimental, and take more risk. Set ambitious goals that are clear and practical, and seek significant, measurable progress.”

Bentz Whaley Flessner partners with colleges, universities, healthcare organizations, and other nonprofits to build strong advancement programs that yield increasing support from foundations, individuals, and corporations. Contact us to learn how we can help you today.

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