Ever wonder what happens to your proposal after you submit it? Read this book to find out.

Thank You for Submitting Your Proposal: A Foundation Director Reveals What Happens Next
141 pages
(Medfield: Emerson & Church, Publishers, 2006)

imageFor the first time, a foundation director has revealed the inner workings of the grantmaking process.  Candid, funny and painfully accurate at times, Thank You For Submitting Your Proposal, a new book by Martin Teitel, the executive eirector of the Cedar Tree Foundation, tells it as it is—and well, you might not like it.

First, someone low in the organization screens your proposal and probably dumps most of it directly in the trash. If you pass, a program officer reads your Letter of Inquiry and summarizes the entire thing to fit inside a tiny box on a spreadsheet.  Then, at the weekly meeting, the program officer reads out the proposal’s title; staff chirp, “Nope, not a fit”; the program officer makes a note on his spreadsheet; and “it’s over in 5 seconds.”

The job of the staff, it seems, is to sift through and select grants that are within the guidelines created by the board. Teitel describes his role as “Curmudgeon-in-Chief” and asks his staff to imagine the board voting on each grant. This activity is usually enough to stop proposals in their tracks. What nonprofits need to realize, Teitel says, turning to the other side of the equation, is that he and his staff are “functionaries carrying out the decisions of other—invisible—people,” the boards members.

Tietel does raise lack of board accountability in his book, but he doesn’t offer a solution:  “Generally speaking, board members win if there is a debate and if it’s structural there’s nothing you can do about it.” So, Teitel tells his staff to “make your case, make it well, and sit back and watch the process. It’s not yours to decide.” I finished the book and decided that despite how painful it is to be on the nonprofit side, being a foundation program officer who has to constantly defer to foundation board members is an even more painful job.

Teitel, who, before working in a foundation, was on staff at several nonprofits, provides the right amount of emotional support for fundraisers.  He reminds us, “You have a right to ask for money.  It’s not groveling for largess, but requesting a share of a publicly-supported resource.” He acknowledges that fundraising is extremely labor intensive and discouraging work: “People who do it deserve credit for trying.” 

Teitel recounts one story of a fundraiser who told him that he sent out six proposals and got five back with no response.  “You need to send out 40 proposals,” replied Teitel.  “And when you get a discouraging response, you should keep doubling it and double your networking and research and editing.  Sometimes there is a person who I’d love to give a grant, but I don’t want to be their only funder.” 

“If I were king of the world,” said Teitel in an interview, “I would require every foundation program officer and board member to have substantial experience working at nonprofits.  Every doctor has been a patient.  You can’t give away money without having raised money.”

His suggestion to fundraisers is also good advice: “Your morale and even sanity will be improved if you don’t expect fairness, justice or rationality—not to mention basic courtesy.” Arm yourself with this book and don’t take rejection so personally again.  I hope that Teitel, whose writing is lucid and lively, will write his next book for funders, counseling them on how to improve their grantmaking process and relationship with grantees. 

Please share your experiences below.


Perla Ni, founder and former publisher of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, is the founder and CEO of GreatNonprofits. She is also a co-founder of Grassroots.com.