The Letter of Inquiry: What It Is, What It's Not, and Why It’s Great for Your Organization

This is the second in a series of five articles on letters of inquiry, a common way for grantseekers and grantmakers to introduce themselves to each other. Before reading on, you may want to check out the series Introduction. The featured image for each post is of a letter that changed history or culture. Today’s letter helped shaped the mythology of Tolkien's Middle-Earth.

We live in an increasingly “fast” world. Our emails, tweets, and Facebook updates — as well as much of our news and entertainment — zip around the globe at about half the speed of light.

In an age characterized by speed, grant writing is still a curiously slow process. (Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to it.) We plan our projects, we find a funder who might be interested, we write the application, we click SUBMIT…and then we wait. And wait. And wait some more. In fact, we wait so much that we have to learn how to wait well — the subject of a future post.

Those of us who are trying to care for our communities know that many of the needs we are trying to address are not just important, they are urgent. Since the basic grant process is already so prolonged, it can be frustrating for the new grant writer to discover that many funders have added yet another step in the long journey toward that much-needed award. More and more grantmakers are requiring potential applicants to submit a letter of inquiry (LOI) to help determine who will be invited to submit full proposals.

But don’t be discouraged.

By the time you have finished reading this article, you’ll see that letters of inquiry aren’t obstacles, they are doors — and powerful tools too. You’ll understand why letters of inquiry are good for the grantmaker, good for the grantseeker (that’s you), and ultimately good for the community you serve. (And in tomorrow’s article, you’ll learn the eight essential elements of an irresistible letter of inquiry.)

What a Letter of Inquiry IS

A letter of inquiry is a kind of mini-proposal that succinctly describes your organization, the project or program for which you are seeking funding, and how that project or program aligns with the grant funder’s own goals. Unless otherwise stated, it is written in letter format and should be no more than three pages long. The purpose of an LOI is to demonstrate an authentic fit between your agency and the grantmaker. While some funders very occasionally make awards based on the strength of a letter of inquiry, such instances are rare; the real goal is to be invited to submit a full proposal.

There are two circumstances in which a letter of inquiry should be used to introduce your organization to a grantmaker:

1. When you’re asked for one.

Pretty self-explanatory.

2. When you’re not asked for anything at all.

Some entries in Foundation Directory Online, or in your state’s Foundation Databook, will mention that the funder is not currently accepting full proposals. This can still be an opportunity to send an LOI.

What a Letter of Inquiry IS NOT

A letter of inquiry is not a manifesto.

Your LOI should be clear and compelling, but it should also be measured.

A letter of inquiry is not bait.

While your LOI should be written well enough that the grantmaker can’t wait to hear more about your project, don’t try to be coy. Don’t tease. Don’t withhold information. An LOI should include everything a potential funder needs to determine that your objectives make common cause with their own.

A letter of inquiry is also not a vague working-out of an idea.

Before you submit an LOI, you should have identified (a) a demonstrable need or opportunity, (b) a plausible plan to address that need or opportunity, (c) the rationale for why your agency is qualified for the project, and (d) a realistic budget for it.

Why LOIs Are Good for Everyone

On the other hand, trying to write an LOI can help you identify the areas in which your project needs more research, more planning, more collaboration, more resources, etc. This is one of the reasons letters of inquiry are actually good for your organization:

  • Outlining and writing an LOI brings into focus the strengths and weaknesses of your particular project.

Here are a few other reasons letters of inquiry are so helpful:

  • The overworked program officer can see in just two pages (rather than ten or twenty) which potential applicants best align with her foundation's current priorities. This gives her more time and energy to focus on the organizations that are a good fit — which could include you!

  • It saves you time, too. If you plan to write more than two or three or four grants, eventually one of your requests for funding will be denied. It happens to everyone, for any number of reasons, several of which are almost totally beyond your control. Wouldn’t you rather be denied after writing a two-page letter than after completing a full application, including narrative, budget forms, and attachments?

  • Writing an LOI gets you thinking about “fit” from the very start. Remember that grant funders aren’t just helping you fulfill your mission — you’re helping them meet theirs. Grantmakers of all kinds — private, corporate, government — have been mandated (by founders, donors, trustees, or lawmakers) to give to certain causes, to certain organizations, or in particular geographic regions. When I talk about “fit” I’m talking about a mutually beneficial relationship.

  • Writing an LOI can help your organization clarify its own priorities, including how the project fits with your mission and strategic plan.

  • Since many letters of inquiry share the same core elements, portions of an LOI can be re-purposed when submitting elsewhere for the same program.

I hope this has been a useful introduction to letters of inquiry. I hope too that you’re starting to see that LOIs are not just bureaucratic red-tape, but tools that can make your agency more effective and even more efficient.

In tomorrow’s post, we’ll get into the nuts-and-bolts of writing an irresistible letter of inquiry.