Often the first step in getting a grant is a Letter of Inquiry or LOI.
An LOI is a quick way to introduce your organization to a prospective funder, and to open up a conversation about how a grant would make a positive impact on the community to change lives.
If a funder likes your LOI, they will invite you to submit more details about what you would like them to fund.
That’s when you’ll be asked to provide detailed financial reports, budgets, and plans for executing your program and measuring your success.
But first, you must use your Letter of Inquiry to convince the funder that you are a good fit, that your missions are aligned, and that, working together, you could make great things happen.
Sometimes, a funder is so convinced by an LOI that the fit is just right that the funder will write you a check without additional information or supporting documents. Grantwriting does not get any better than that!
Writing an LOI can be intimidating because you have to pack a lot of information into a small space — usually about three pages — and you have to frame your organization’s work and the specific program you are seeking funding for in a way that piques the reviewer’s interest and compels them to want to give you money or at least learn more.
Fortunately, when it comes to the structure, you don’t have to guess at what is required. Sometimes the funder will tell you exactly how to structure the LOI. The funder might even provide a sample.
If the funder does not provide guidance, you can use our tried-and-true template for a stellar Letter of Inquiry.
An LOI is something of an art form, one you can master with practice and by understanding what funders want.
1. Take a moment to reflect. Before you start writing a Letter of Inquiry, take a quiet, deep-breath moment to reflect on what you are setting out to do. The LOI is part of the grantmaking process, because it would be overwhelming and time-consuming for funders to review 20-page full proposals from everyone seeking money.
That would just plain take too long.
The LOI is a way for the funder to weed out submissions they don’t like and identify the ones they do like.
Think about the unique qualities of your program that might get you on the ‘keep’ pile instead of the ‘reject’ pile. Put yourself in the shoes of the funder and imagine you are reading stacks of LOIs. What kinds of details would jump out at you? What would make the difference between rejecting the LOI or sending the organization through to the next round? Jot down your thoughts so you can highlight these details when writing and stand out from the competition.
2. Treat an LOI like a first impression every time. When you meet someone for the first time, you make a special effort to put your best foot forward, especially if you want to cultivate a relationship with that person. When you write an LOI, you want to put your best foot forward every single time, even if you already received money from the funder or know the foundation staff personally.
It’s almost like you are an actor auditioning for a part in a play you really want. Even if you have the experience and training necessary to play the part, even if you have researched the role and know you are right for it, even if you have played the exact same role in this play for a theater company in another state and gotten rave reviews … you still have to audition for the part. You still have to convince the director to cast you!
Never take it for granted — pardon the pun! — that you will get funded a second or third time. The reality is foundations often want to spread their resources around and give new organizations a chance. Give the LOI your 110% best effort every time, no matter how convinced you are that you are going to get the grant.
If you are submitting a second time after being denied the first time, you are getting a second chance to make a first impression. So make it count! If you got feedback from the funder when you were denied, incorporate that feedback into the new LOI. If you aren’t sure why you were denied, or if you were told you were denied just because there were too many LOIs, think about ways you can make this LOI stronger.
3. Give the funders what they want. Here are two hard-and-fast truths about grantmakers when it comes to deciding who they want to fund:
Truth #1: They want to be inspired by what the nonprofit does.
Truth #2: They want to partner with nonprofits who will help them achieve their goal of positively affecting change in the community issues they care about.
Once you wrap your brain around these truths about what funders want to accomplish with their giving, you can begin to shape the message in your LOI that will give them exactly what they want.
In describing the problem you are looking to solve, do so in a way that evokes an emotional response. Often a single detail will accomplish this.
For example, let’s say you are writing an LOI for a program to give suitcases, new clothing, school supplies, and other support to children in foster care. You note in the LOI that in the county your organization serves, foster children stay in the same home for a few months on average but they stay in the foster care system for a year on average. So most children are moving at least three times. That, alone, is powerful.
But go one step further. What is it like for children caught in this system that requires them to pick up and move again and again? What if you know that children often carry their belongings from foster home to foster home in a garbage bag. You have seen this many times, and it barely registers anymore. Yet, that image of a child going from home to home with their belongings in a garbage bag will be heart-shattering to the person reading your LOI.
People need to care about the problem you are defining if they are going to want to take action to fix it.
Funders want to read an LOI that raises their eyebrows and makes their heart pound. They want to get excited about a new way to change lives. You have the power to do that for them!
4. Knock their socks off! You want to leave the person who reads your LOI with a feeling of WOW! You want to leave the person who reads your LOI wanting to know more, needing to know more, wanting to do more, wanting to get deeply involved in your work. Think about the opportunities you have for a WOW moment. Is there a specific life you changed that you can reference succinctly in your LOI? Is there a problem you can reveal that needs immediate attention but that no one is really paying attention to? Is there a problem that can be immediately addressed while making a huge impact?
For example, a volunteer-run dental clinic learned through many years of providing dental services that quality dental care impacted a person’s overall health, including heart health. By providing regular, quality dental care, the volunteer-run clinic eased pain associated with toothaches, but the clinic also extended people’s quality of life because of the connection between dental care and overall health. A gift of a much-needed crown was not just the gift of pain relief in that tooth, it was the gift of better overall health, fewer trips to the doctor, fewer missed days of work, more enjoyment of life, and even a longer lifespan. Who wouldn’t want to give someone back their joy and extend their life?
Here’s another example: A dance troupe for kids from all types of backgrounds discovered many positives beyond dance among the students enrolled in the troupe, including a full point increase in their GPA on average, fewer missed days of school, a more goal-oriented approach to post-high school options, and more scholarship opportunities, over half of which were unrelated to dance. Give the gift of dance, and you might end up sending a kid to college on an academic scholarship!
5. Mind the basics. After working so hard to craft a compelling, heart-capturing, soul-stirring LOI, you don’t want to make a misstep that turns the reviewer off. If the funder provides you with a form or template for your LOI, you will know exactly what they want.
If you are on your own, here are some standards you want to keep in mind: