Two reasons that your cover letter matters, and three ways to create meaningful cover letters

The general rule is to write the cover letter after you complete the final draft of the other proposal documents.

On the other hand, starting the cover letter can be a good way to break through writers block or procrastination at the beginning of the proposal-writing process!

Two reasons that the cover letter matters:

  • The cover letter is a tangible indicator of your organization's identity and ability. The type of logo and paper that your organization uses conveys brand identity; the style of writing and word choice conveys overall organizational ability.
  • The cover letter allows you to give the funder an elevator speech about the proposed project. Here, you have a great opportunity to briefly summarize the project and its importance in the world. The cover letter is also the right place within the proposal package to state how/why the project is a good fit for the foundation or funding program.*

Three ways to create stand-out cover letters:

1) Organize the cover letter following standard business formatting.

Below is a quick cheat-sheet -- visit Purdue Online Writing Lab for more complete directions.

  • Your organization's logo goes at top of letter, usually centered.
  • Next is the date you are sending the letter.
  • Next is the "inside address" -- the program officer's name and title, and the foundation's name and address. Be sure to spell the program officer's name correctly! (Your organization's mailing address is generally included in the letterhead design, either under the logo or at the side or bottom of the page, so you don't need to type your organization's address into the letter.)
  • Next is the salutation ("Dear ...") -- The letter should greet the person by last name. If the Executive Director or Board Chair is on a first-name basis with the foundation contact, they can cross out the last-name salutation and hand-write the first name (e.g., "Dear Jessinta") here.
  • Next is the body of the letter -- I usually aim for four not-too-long paragraphs.  The first paragraph should state the complete name of your organization and the essential fact that you are grateful to submit the enclosed proposal which respectfully requests a grant of $X for X project. The second  paragraph should summarize your project in an interesting way, and make the connection between the funder's interests and the project. The third paragraph should provide contact information for the person to reach if the funder has any questions about the proposed project. The fourth paragraph should say (again) that you thank the funder for the opportunity to submit your proposal and that you look forward to further contact.
  • Next is your closing (with "Sincerely," the signature block, and the signer's name and title typed under the signature).
  • Last is the "Enclosures" line -- abbreviated as "Enc." This simply means that you are enclosing additional documents (e.g., the proposal narrative) with the cover letter.

2) For proposals that you will send through the mail, choose paper stock that will help tell your story.

When you're mailing a proposal, the actual sheet of paper that you print the cover letter on matters a lot.

If your organization has an environmental or resource-conscious identity, then be sure that the paper stock you use is recycled and has some type of recognizable recycled paper logo printed on it.

If your organization has a high-end brand identity in any way, then bond paper that feels good in the hand is a nice touch. (And you can certainly get recycled bond paper if you want to say, "we're a classy environmental organization.")

3) For proposals that you will send via email, make the cover letter a PDF.

If you are sending the proposal electronically by email, once you've completed the cover letter, take the extra step to save it as a PDF. (You can usually do this in Word with the save-as tool.)

Because the cover letter includes your logo and the (scanned and pasted in) signature of your Executive Director or Board Chair, you don't want to send it out into the world in a way in which it could be accidentally modified.

Saving the letter as a PDF sends the message that you are tech-savvy and that you care enough about your final product to protect it in its intended form. And that sends the nonverbal message that your organization will also appropriately care for its grant!

* Proposal ninja tip: The cover letter lets you include writing that you may have needed to cut from other parts of the proposal.

In the cases when a funder has really strict limitations on length of various proposal sections, you can use the cover letter to include text that is important but couldn't fit anywhere else. However, don't assume that the cover letter will always be read by the decision-making group--you do need to get all the truly essential information into the narrative and budget.

All I Really Need to Know (About Grant Proposal Writing) I Learned from "Free Stuff for Kids"

When was a little girl in the glorious 1980s, I had a book called Free Stuff for Kids.

As the title suggests, this book is about how kids can get free stuff by writing to companies and organizations to politely request that said free stuff be mailed to them.  (The free loot available was edifying, wholesome and often a bit odd -- for example, an "I Brake for Manatees" bumper sticker was on offer.)

I was eight years old, the weather was beautiful, there was a garden to taste blueberries in, a treehouse to climb in, a pool down the street to jump in... and there I was, indoors, poring over Free Stuff for Kids.

I was acing the nuance of form of address, throwing down acronyms (SASE for self-addressed stamped envelope, for example), and following the instructions about enclosures to a tee.

Never mind about the precious days of childhood and how many hours may have been squandered on Free Stuff for Kids avarice. This is what Free Stuff for Kids taught me about producing effective grant proposals: Write a clear, compelling cover letter that makes a connection to the funder's interests: The first chapter of Free Stuff For Kids was about how to write a letter to request that the product be sent to you. The letter-writing-kid was instructed to explain why he or she liked the company or organization, and how he or she would use the requested product. (Example: "I love manatees! I will stick the free bumper sticker on my Trapper Keeper." I look forward to the day when I can recycle this phrase in a cover letter to a foundation.) Follow the directions: It's true -- if you don't follow the directions, you might not get the free stuff. For example, we were instructed to include with our request a self-addressed stamped envelope (that would be a SASE!) in the case when the free item  was a document or other goodie that could fit in a standard envelope. (Thinking about it now, though, I do wonder if something that fits in a business-sized envelope is something that a kid actually wants. Case in point: a pamphlet from the corn growers association about 100 ways to use popcorn. I don't have that anymore.)

Grant applications come with many instructions, and they all do need to be followed. Remember: following the instructions is a sign to grantmakers that you will implement the grant responsibly, if funded.

Treat grantmakers with respect: According to Free Stuff for Kids (1986 edition), one should open a letter with the salutation, "Dear Sir or Madam." There's something undeniably jaunty about this Victorian-era salutation, and I'm still sometimes tempted to use it on my grant application cover letters (no, not really). But courtesy is always appreciated. Funders are people too!

A corporate foundation's program officer recently told me that her pet peeve is when grantseekers send her an email that opens with, "Dear Jessica." Her name is Jessinta! The grant guidelines on the foundation's website include her full name. She said, "When someone sends me an email that starts, 'Dear Jessica,' I think, They don't even care enough to read the grant guidelines and get my name right! And then I'm less inclined to look favorably on their proposal." *

Free Stuff for Kids: it keeps on giving. I just found the "I Brake for Manatees" bumper sticker in a box of my childhood treasures. I stuck it on the bumper of my husband's car, and he was delighted.

* Actually, her name is neither Jessica nor Jessinta. I changed it for sake of confidentiality.  Point is: please spell the program officer's name correctly. If you get her name wrong, she will wonder what your organization will get wrong in implementing a grant.