Although the main parts of your grant proposal will take up most of your time and energy, don't shortchange your cover letter. Attention to the subtler points of putting the proposal package together can make or break a funding request. Don't turn off your funder with a sloppy cover letter.
Mim Carlson and Tori O'Neal-McElrath, authors of Winning Grants, Step by Step, point out that the cover letter should:
- Introduce your organization to the correct person.
- Assure the funder that this project has the support of your board of directors.
- State what you are asking for - how much and for what.
When Do You Include a Cover Letter?
Use a cover letter for proposals to corporations and foundations, but not for federal or state grant applications. Those funders only want what they ask for, and they rarely ask for a cover letter.
Attributes of a Good Cover Letter
Your cover letter should:
- Be brief
- Get to the point quickly
- Does not repeat the information that is in the proposal
- Tell the reader how well you understand the funder and how your grant fulfills the funder's requirements
Beverly A. Browning, the author of Grant Writing for Dummies, suggests that you write the cover letter after you've completed the entire proposal, and when you are in a reflective mood. Browning says:
"As you consider your great achievement (the finished funding request), let the creative, right side of your brain kick in and connect your feelings of accomplishment to the person who will help make your plans come true."
Formatting Your Cover Letter
- Use your organization's letterhead. Put the same date on the cover letter that is on the completed grant application. That is the date you will send the grant proposal to the grantor. Using the same date makes all the documents in your proposal package consistent.
- For the inside address (goes at the top of the letter) use the foundation or corporate contact person's name and title, followed by the funding source's name, address, city, state, and zip code. Double-check this information with a telephone call or an email. Such information changes frequently, so make sure you have the current name and address.
- In your salutation, use "Dear" plus the personal title (Mr., Ms., Mrs., Dr., Messrs., etc.), followed by the last name. It is critical that you address the letter to a particular person. Call the foundation or corporate office to make sure you have the right person and the correct personal title. These details may seem unimportant, but they do matter.
- Your first paragraph should be short and focused. Introduce your organization (its legal name, which will be your corporate name) and tell the funder how much money you are requesting and why. Include a sentence or two about what your organization does, and then include one research-based point that shows there is a need for what your organization does.
- Write one or two more brief paragraphs. State your project's purpose and how it fits with the funder's mission or funding priorities. Include the fact that your board of directors fully supports the project.
- End your letter with a summarizing paragraph. Add what this funding partnership can mean for your project's target audience. You might want to include an invitation for a site visit as well.
- Use a closing such as "Sincerely."
- The letter should be signed by the executive director or the board president, or both. Below the signature, type the signer's first name, middle initial, last name, and job title. Although the ED or board president should sign the letter, do include the contact information for the best person to answer questions at the end of the last paragraph.
- At the bottom of the letter, include the word, "ENCLOSURE" (in all caps).
How Long Should the Cover Letter Be?
Limit your cover letter to one page with three or four paragraphs. It should be a quick read.
The tone and specifics of your cover letter may vary depending on whether you've been invited to submit a full proposal after sending a Letter of Inquiry (LOI), or if this project is your organization's first approach to this particular foundation.
Sample Cover Letter
Mary Smith, PhD
4321 Common Lane
Some City, YZ 55555
Dear Dr. Smith:
The Some City Senior Center respectfully requests a grant of $50,000 for our Senior Latino Community Outreach Pilot Project.
As the largest senior center in Any County, serving over 450 seniors every day, we are aware of the changing demographics in our service area. And we are committed to growing and adapting our center to meet emerging needs. The Senior Latino Community Outreach Pilot Project will allow us to pilot a one-year effort to determine if our center can effectively:
Provide comprehensive access to health and social services to seniors in the Latino communities served by our center, and
Raise and fully integrate the cultural competency of the board, staff, and volunteers of the Some City Senior Center.
Our board of directors is enthusiastic about this program and eager to launch it so we can become the most inclusive and culturally competent center for seniors in all of our communities that need these services. Should we find at the end of our pilot year that this program is, in fact, successful, our board has committed to including a portion of the project's yearly expenses into our annual operating budget so that the program becomes an integral part of our core services.
Through this project, the Center will become the primary referral given by Health Access Latinos, Families of Any County, and three community clinics within a fifteen-mile radius of our center. We will also accept referrals of Spanish-speaking seniors from any other community agency in our immediate service area.
Thank you for your consideration of our request. I will follow up with you in the next week to answer any questions you might have, as well as to learn whether we might meet with you to discuss the merits of our proposal. Meanwhile, should you have any questions, please feel free to contact Connie Jones, our Director of Development, at (555) 555-5555, x555, or email@example.com.
*Letter reprinted (with modifications) with permission from Winning Grants, Step by Step, Second Edition, Tori O'Neal-McElrath, Jossey-Bass, 2008.
Mistakes to Avoid in Your Cover Letter
- Writing too much. A cover letter is not a dissertation, nor is it a full proposal. Keep it short and to the point Tip: Have someone else read it. Do they understand it?
- Using big words. If you've been to graduate school, you learned to write in a complicated way. Don't do that here. You're not trying to impress someone with your erudition. You only want to state your case as naturally as possible. If you don't know when you're overcomplicating your writing, use an app such as Hemingway. It will tell you when your sentences are hard to read and when you are too wordy.
- Making Grammatical Mistakes. If you're not sure of your grammar, don't take chances. Use the grammar check in WORD, and, also run your draft through an app such as Grammarly. There is a free version, but the paid version goes well beyond the necessary grammar check.
Make Your Cover Letter Stand Out
Sad to say, but your grant proposal may be among hundreds or thousands that a typical foundation will see during an average year. Your cover letter can make the difference in getting to the next step towards funding. But how can you make it stand out?
Don't try anything "cute," as foundation officials will not be impressed.
The cover letter would not be appropriate for a story about a client, although you should have a story for other parts of your proposal, such as the description of the problem. Include a paragraph about why your organization is the one that can best accomplish this mission. Survey your competitive organizations and assess just how and where you excel. That may be in the strength of your staff and volunteers, your experience with this particular problem, or the community support you enjoy.
You don't need to mention the names of competitors or criticize them. Just highlight your strengths. This would be a good time to consult with others around the office. Pull a few people together and brainstorm how your nonprofit excels.
Fundamentally, the cover letter should be forward moving, easy-to-read and compel the reader into the larger proposal. Don't put any obstacles in the way of the reader that might deter them from reading further.