Updated: Apr 27, 2019
In order to succeed at grant writing you will need to master the art of writing a letter of inquiry. The letter of inquiry is one of 7 key steps in the grant application process.
Although some foundations are converting their applications into online forms, the majority still accept grants the old fashioned way. This means that if you want to maximize your potential number of grant opportunities, you will need to learn how to write an eye-catching letter of inquiry.
In this guide you will learn what a letter of inquiry is and how to use it to win the attention of potential grant funders.
What is a Letter of Inquiry
A letter of inquiry (LOI) is commonly the first of two steps in the grant application process. It is a one to three page letter than gives an overview of your organization and your program that funders use to assess your eligibility.
Letters of inquiry save funders from having to read full length applications for every applicant. Many organizations that apply are ineligible or unqualified. Foundations I’ve spoken to say they reject over 50% of all LOIs they receive. It’s therefore crucial that you learn how to get this step right.
Two types of LOIs, two different strategies
Some funders accept LOIs through an online application, others by email, and some still request letters in the mail. But the important distinction is whether they provide you with instructions for completing the LOI or not.
The focus of this guide is how to create a LOI when there are no instructions. I will teach you the method below.
But before we dive in to creating your own LOI, I want to make sure you are an expert at creating LOIs from instructions as well.
The advice here is simple.
When a foundation gives you instructions or a template for creating an LOI, follow them word for word. Foundations are usually inundated with funding requests so the first things they look for in your letter are eligibility and did you follow instructions properly. Leaving out just one piece of information could send your letter to the reject pile.
This also means make sure all your answers are well formatted and easy to find. If you are creating a hard copy LOI (not an online application) use lots of section headings and sub headings so that it is easy for the reader to follow.
Okay now lets discuss how to create a successful LOI from scratch.
The anatomy of a successful LOI
There isn’t an exact formula for what to include in an LOI. That said, there are several key pieces of information that most funders are interested in learning about your organizations. They can be organized into 4-5 sections, each usually being one paragraph on the page.
Give an overview of who you are, what you do, and prove that you are a good match for the foundation. This means you should describe your mission, your previous and current programs, and your expertise in this area.
Explain why your work is necessary, and why is it needed now. Describe the target population and geographic area for you program and explain why they need your program. Include a few hard-hitting statistics to help make your case but don’t go overboard with numbers. One good statistic will make more of an impact on the reader than a number salad of facts and figures.
Explain your program. Make it clear how your program will solve the need. If this is an ongoing program, provide the number of individuals it has served and other indicators of success. For both new programs and ongoing programs you can estimate what you plan to accomplish in the future. Foundations will be impressed if you present a bold but realistic vision.
Describe how much funding you need and explain what it will be used for. Also briefly explain if there are already other sources of funding.
There is a caveat here: if this letter is your first contact with a foundation that makes grants by invitation only, you probably do not want to ask for funding right off the bat. I wrote this guide on how to approach these types of foundations.
Introduction / Conclusion
Many LOI guides list these as required sections. I don’t think you should necessarily devote an entire paragraph to each given the short format and limited space. Instead you can have a sentence or two in the beginning and end paragraphs serve this purpose.
Include a hook to keep your reader glued to the page
After you have created a draft of your LOI, go back through and find the single most interesting or impressive line on the page. This is your hook. Find a way to place this information within the first few sentences of the letter. Its crucial that you grab the reader's interest early or else they may lose interest and stop reading.
This first impression sets the tone for for how they will interpret the rest of your letter. If they start off excited, they will read each line with excitement. But if they start uninterested, they will be uninterested throughout.
And here's the most important part.
As I'm going to discuss below, the key to a strong LOI is tailoring it to each foundation. This means you may need a different hook for each foundation. If possible, write not just for the foundation but for the exact person who will be reading your letter. Look your reader up on social media, learn their interests, and read their publications. Then use this information to design a hook that is guaranteed to catch their attention.
Neglect format at your peril
A letter of inquiry should always go on your organization letterhead, have your contact information and the contact information of the recipient at the top, and include your signature.
In the age of email it is tempting to skip these formalities but forgoing them communicates a lack of interest and sophistication.
I believe the ideal length for an LOI is one page. I mentioned earlier that LOIs are typically 1-3 pages but this includes LOIs that are based on foundation instructions.
You are asking someone who may not know you to take time out of their busy schedule to read your letter. Make it easy to read, interesting, and worth their while. Fitting your story onto one page also forces you to write only the most important information. This is crucial for capturing the reader’s attention.
Want a nifty shortcut to writing your LOI? Try our free Letter of Inquiry Template tool that captures all your key information and automatically puts it in the correct format.
Once you have this template you can add the final crucial component, which I will discuss below.
Personalize your LOI to appeal to heart and mind
Now that you know the structure of the LOI, it’s time to add the finishing touches that will help you stand out above the competition:
Personalization and positive spin.
An LOI is similar to a job resume. You could send the same resume to dozens of employers and hope one of them happens to read it. Or you can take a little extra time to tailor the resume for each employer, emphasizing certain skills and experience that you know are most relevant.
The key is to spin your message just enough without lying or misrepresenting. Having worked as a grant writer myself, I know how tempting it is to spin or distort the facts too far. If you find yourself tempted to exaggerate your story, you should consider investing the time to improve your organization and generate better results so that the facts can speak for themselves.
Here are a few tried and true grant writer methods you can use to positively spin your work without veering into unethical behavior.
1) Use emphasis
This first technique is simple. Focus on the aspects of your work that you know are relevant and appealing to the funder and leave out what isn’t. If you have multiple programs or serve multiple different populations, describe the program and population the funder cares most about.
Many funders list programs or activities that they do not fund. Make sure not to mention any of these aspects of your work. However, if the majority of your work falls under the “do not fund” list then you should probably consider applying elsewhere.
2) Tell the right story
Funders often express their preferences for broad categories of projects, such as human services or education. Your project may fit into multiple categories so it is your job to explain to each funder how your work is relevant to them.
Let’s say you mentor youth.
You may explain to "funder 1" that you are providing youth development, while explaining to "funder 2" that you are fighting systemic poverty. Both statements are true but you are giving each funder the story they most want to hear.
Never assume that a funder will automatically connect the dots between your work and their interests. The easier it is for the funder to understand the relevance of your work, the more likely they are to invite you to apply.
3) Use alternative facts
Some may use the term “alternative facts” as a euphemism for lies. But the truth is that there will always be a variety of real statistics for you to choose from to present to potential funders. Present numbers that reinforce your story and that speak to the problem the funder is trying to solve. "Funder 1" might interested to know that you mentored 1000 youth total, whereas "funder 2" might be more interested to know that 80% of your service population are underserved youth.
Be mindful of how you frame your statistics. Would you tell a funder than you have a 60% success rate or a 40% failure rate?
The key to a winning letter of inquiry is to learn the craft, do your research, and wow your reader.
Now that you are a LOI expert its time to find some foundations to apply to.
Los Angeles nonprofits can get free foundation recommendations here.