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Private Foundation Inquiries

Inquiries to Private Foundations

Proposals to foundations have a better chance of succeeding if they are preceded by an informal contact. This contact is usually a brief (not more than two pages) letter outlining the proposed project, suggesting why the foundation should be interested in it, and requesting an appointment to discuss it in further detail. Such a letter permits an investigator to make inquiries to several foundations at once and gives an interested foundation the chance to offer suggestions before receiving the formal proposal. In many cases, the letter of inquiry is required for the purposes of either preparing for reviews or screening out non-responsive ideas. (Please note that it is still acceptable to contact the program officer before you submit your letter of inquiry.)

Most foundations have specific areas of interest for which they award funds. It is essential that the grant seeker identify those foundations whose interests match the proposed project. Seldom will a foundation fund a project outside of its stated field of interest.

The initial letter of inquiry should demonstrate that the investigator is acquainted with the work and purposes of the particular foundation being approached and should point out a clear connection between these and the proposed project. A letter so generally phrased that it could be a form letter is almost certain to be disregarded. An effective letter will discuss the significance or uniqueness of the project: Who will benefit? Who cares about the results? What difference will it make if the project is not funded? It will give enough indication of step-by-step planning to show that the project has been thought through and that pitfalls have been anticipated. It will demonstrate the writer's grasp of the subject and his or her credentials to undertake the project. It will emphasize at the same time that this is a preliminary inquiry, not a formal proposal, and that the investigator will send further details if the foundation wishes, or, better yet, will visit the foundation to discuss the project in depth. It is unnecessary in the preliminary inquiry to include a detailed budget, although an overall cost estimate should be mentioned.

A good letter, then, might begin something like the following: "Because of the interest the __________ Foundation has shown in __________, I am writing to solicit its support for a project that will __________." This should be followed by a sentence describing the program, the institution, and another one or two concerning the need for and uniqueness of the project.

The body of the letter should consist of three or four paragraphs giving the context or background of the project, its scope and methodology, the time required for its completion, the institutional commitments, and any special capabilities that will ensure the project's success. A separate paragraph might be given to some of the major categories of the proposed budget, including a rounded total direct cost estimate, and mention of any matching fund or cost-sharing arrangements, either in dollars or in-kind contributions.

The last paragraph could be patterned along these lines: “Please let me know if you would like to discuss this idea further or have any questions. My contact information is ______________________. I look forward to hearing from you soon. Thank you for your consideration."

This letter of inquiry is crucially important, and in preparing it investigators should avail themselves of the advice and help of foundation relations staff in the Schools and Colleges. Contacting U-M Development's Foundation Relations office for help in approaching and coordinating activities with foundations also is a good idea. Contacts with some foundations are controlled by this office and others are coordinated. UM Foundation Relations can provide valuable consultation, e.g., prior funding to the University of Michigan. Refer to their “Foundation Funding for Faculty” at for advice on how to write a letter of inquiry, sample awarded proposals, foundation prospecting, etc.

Detailed information about the foundation’s priorities can be gleaned from the foundation's annual reports and from the list of projects that the foundation has actually supported. 


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