10 Steps to Write a Successful Letter of Inquiry

A letter of inquiry is a gate opener.

This letter of inquiry, not to be confused with a letter of intent, can be the difference between a grant accepting a next step application from your nonprofit or shutting you down.

You will normally find requests for Letters of Inquiry from Private Foundations. Basically, they want to get a snapshot of what your nonprofit is all about to even consider entertaining you to submit a full grant. So the Letter of Inquiry is to be succinct and amazing. The saying, “Less is More” is real here.

These are 10 steps to Write a Successful Letter of Inquiry that Gets you Invited to Apply for a Grant


No, I am not talking about formatting alignment (we will get there later), but I am talking about does the foundation even aligns with your nonprofit? Just because there is tons of money out there, doesn’t mean you should apply to every single foundation in the world. Each foundation is set up to serve a certain priority, often in a certain geographic area, and has a certain amount of money to give.

Before YOU even consider submitting a letter of inquiry to a foundation, first do your homework and look at the foundation’s website, review their mission and vision statement and goals, look at their annual giving report (if it’s not on their website visit www.guidestar.org), identify their giving guidelines, and see what other nonprofits they have given awarded grants.

If you get a good match on all these elements, then you are in a good place to submit a letter of inquiry. Now, all foundations will not require a letter of inquiry! That is fine! They may instead post “How to Apply” on their website and give other requirements. This is another reason to do your research on the foundation’s website!

But many foundations do want a very basic two-page Letter of Inquiry, and this is what we are discussing today! If you see “proposals not accepted” when you are looking through the ‘How to Apply’ section then, it usually means that you must first submit this letter of inquiry!

#2 Overall Tips on Format

Be succinct. No flowery prose here. Be logical and make sure you include an objective, goal, and budget. Sure, you can include your logo on the header (if they do not require you to submit it online!), and maybe one picture, but that is about it. Use Times New Roman, 12-point font, and one-inch margins. Don’t be cute with a whimsical font that you had to specially download.

In college, I worked at the college newspaper and I remember the director of the newspaper telling me she had once applied for a job at a newspaper and turned her resume into a newspaper layout, where she had each area; experience, education, references, etc. made to look like little articles in a newspaper. She said she had been proud of it and it was cute, but she also said she never got that job. Point taken.

Another example, the book I wrote, “Wish Granted! Tips, Tools, & Templates to Write a Winning Grant” has a super cute title, right. Wish Granted, tee-hee. But try that one on for SEO. You don’t want something that takes some time to connect. In fact, I updated the title to The Beginner’s Guide to Grant Writing and started selling more and more copies.

This is even more important for letters of inquiry! Do not use cute, flowery, or whimsical language. Save that for your blog or journal.

Basically, the Letter of Inquiry is a super-condensed version of a grant proposal. Ask a grant writer any day if they prefer two pages and 15 pages and they will most likely fist pump with enthusiasm at 15 pages. When you have less to express the awesome project you need to be more skilled with your words! But once that grant writer has perfected a two-page Letter of Inquiry for a nonprofit’s project, they can easily write 15 pages on the project.

If you want more information on how to write a grant proposal then click on episode 042: How to Write a Winning Grant Proposal.

#3 Salutation

Include the date you are submitting at the top of the page, as well as the person’s name and title of who it should be addressed to (find a NAME – never just write ‘To Whom it May Concern’), and the address of the foundation. Utilize the good ole fashioned, “Dear NAME of PERSON”.

#4 Introductory (one short paragraph)

Unless otherwise required by the foundations you will include steps #3 through #9.

Your opening paragraph is where you get the attention of your reviewers from the foundation. I also teach an English Comp class at a University where I very strongly emphasize the need for a hook. Get the reader’s attention! But, Holly, didn’t you just say not to be whimsical? Yes, I did. You aren’t being whimsical. You are getting attention in one sentence. After that, be boring.

Example: “Have you ever caught a whale?” NONPROFIT Name is an IRS Tax-exempt 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that was incorporated in 2015 in the state of Alaska. Our mission statement is X, which aligns with the mission statement of X of Foundation X. We seek support of $5,000 in one year to purchase materials and build five storage containers to contain our whale food year-round. These containers will give us with the ability to carry out our fishing traditions, as well as provide subsistence for the 900 low-income members of our community.”

Keep this paragraph very short. Do not explain the need and how you will roll out the project, yet. ‘

Make sure your opening paragraph answers the following questions:

  1. Is your organization and nonprofit status list (including the year of incorporation)?
  2. What project do you want to do?
  3. How much are you requesting from the foundation (if it is not 100% what matching will you use?)
  4. What time-frame will you expend the money?
  5. Do you have a hook?

#5 The Need or the Why (two to three Paragraphs)

Now get into the need. You’ve already stated what you need, now state why you need it. Give a few stats to back up the need. Try to utilize stats or surveys that are within the previous five years. For example,

Climate change has now eliminated the ability to use the permafrost for our freezers, while simultaneously increasing the threat of losing our food to polar bears. Over the last five years, we have lost all ten of our underground natural permafrost freezers as they now leak water during the summer months. We also face an increase of migrated polar bears, where before 2015 we had an average of 30 polar bears for three weeks out of the year in our town, since 2015 we now have an average of 50 polar bears for three months out of every year, who come into town searching for food. As our freezers have washed out we are now at risk of our stored whale to be easier for the polar bears to get to. In our community where 75% of the community members are under the national poverty level and where groceries are five times the cost, being able to hunt whales and eat the meat throughout the year are vital to our sustenance.

Okay, next is to get into the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of the project. This will be the body of your letter and will take the most paragraphs.

6. Project (two+ paragraphs)

Explain your goal: What is the overall goal. In our example, it is not to get five containers as that is the objective. The goal is basically the reverse of your problem. The main problem is that your community is at risk of losing sustenance and tradition. The goal could be that all 900 community members that are in poverty have access to traditional eating and sustenance.

List the objectives: In this case, it is very simple. The main objective could be to build five secure and cold containers that have enough space to contain one entire whale by the end of six months.

List the activities: I actually love doing this in chart style if you can get it to fit into your page limitation. In the case of graphs and charts you may be able to cheat on your font size. Normally, you may be able to go to a 10 font or 11 font. I like this because it breaks up your paragraphs more and allows for some white space or a different flow of information. Activities for your objective could include that the

  • The Executive Director will purchase the materials by the end of month one.
  • 10 staff and volunteers will build the containers by the end of month three.
  • The Executive Director will send a report to the foundation by the end of month six.

List your Partners: If you are collaborating with other organizations then include their roles. For example, 10 community volunteers have committed their time to build containers. Please request for their letters of commitment.

You may have other details such as hiring, selecting beneficiaries, and so forth. Make sure you include these as space allows.

7. Outcomes and Evaluations (1–2 paragraphs)

What are the main outcomes? This outcome would be that five containers will allow your 900 community members to continue hunting and storing whale in a safe and protected manner, as well as provide food for your community members at no monetary costs.

How will you evaluate this? This example is pretty simple as you will evaluate this by the containers being built and utilized.

8. Validation of your Nonprofit (1–2 paragraphs)

The last part is where you get to explain why your nonprofit is a rock star. Tell why your nonprofit is the best to carry out the activity. If you have won other grants, awards, or secured money through fundraisers then list that here.

9. Budget (1–2 paragraphs)

Most funding sources would like a snapshot of the budget. If you have space include a little snapshot of a graph of the money. You can also use words for budget justification, but a graph might be easier. For this example, we would breakdown the costs of materials.

For Wood, cement, and building supplies = $3,000

Shipping = $2,000

This is a very basic example but notice I did not just put five containers = $5,000. Still breakdown the costs, via building supplies and shipping.

10. Conclusion (1 short paragraph)

Provide a ‘Thank you’ and appreciation for the reviewer’s time. Also include a contact name, email address, and phone number. Include that you are interested in discussing this project via phone and will contact them by a certain time (usually a couple of weeks after you submit the letter of inquiry).

There are 10 steps to completing a successful letter of inquiry. This letter can easily be augmented by other foundations. You don’t want to blast this same letter off to 100 different foundations, but it can be augmented to other foundations as long as you do step one (alignment) for each foundation FIRST.

The other thing is by doing this letter of inquiry you really have to get clear on your project. The 15-page grant will feel like a cinch after doing this letter of inquiry!

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