Cover Photo Image

Step 1: Define the Idea

Your proposal should express your plans to meet a need through a specific project with defined goals. Below are some questions that you should be able to answer regarding your project: 

• What problem or need does your project address?

• How do you plan to address the problem—what activities will you use?

• What will be the outcome of the project?

• What effect will there be beyond JMU?

• Who will direct the project? Who else will be involved?

• What internal or external collaborators will be engaged?

• Which internal organizations will be involved in project acceptance and administration?

• How will you define success for the project and how will this be evaluated?

• How long will the project last and what finances will be necessary to carry it out?

• How might the project be sustained after the foundation funds expire?

• How does your project fit within the academic mission of your college and James Madison University?

 The Office of Corporate and Foundation Relations is happy to help you think through your project and strategy.

Step 2: Find Potential Funders

After you have thought through your project, you will need to research foundations that may have an interest in supporting it. 

James Madison University has access to several large Foundation search sites and the office of Corporate and Foundation Relations can assist you with looking for potential funding sources.

You may also gather general knowledge of organizations sponsoring projects in your field by talking with colleagues, reading journal articles, or noting who is acknowledged for their support at events. Other ways to locate a funder include researching the Top 50 Collection below, searching topical compilations, or signing up to receive alerts for Requests for Proposals (RFPs).

Alignment: Once you have located a potential funder, you will need to determine how closely aligned your project is with the funding priorities of the foundation. You need to understand the foundation’s giving capacity and its granting patterns to determine if they may fund a project similar to yours and what an appropriate request amount would be. Sometimes this information is readily available online, and other times it can only be found by reviewing the foundation’s tax forms.

  1. If available, carefully read the foundation’s website looking for its (1) grant-making philosophy and interests; (2) application guidelines; and (3) deadlines and recent grants.
  2. Review the foundation’s annual reports and other publications available.
  3. Review the foundation’s Form 990-PF for the most recent years. You may access these through the GuideStar site. Open the most recent 990-PF and look at the following:
    • Giving patterns in recipients and amounts granted (the grantee list is often located near the end of the return).
    • The Trustee list. Are there any known relationships?  
    • Directions for approaching the foundation (often near page 9 or 10). Also note the correct address and contact information (page 1).
  4. Finally, if your project is not a close fit, do not apply. Look for another funder.

Step 3: Before Contacting a Foundation

Before contacting a foundation or corporation, please contact the Office of Corporate and Foundation Relations. We will be able to tell you about James Madison University’s history with that funder and work with you to navigate institutional policies. JMU has a priority-driven agenda with a few select funders and a process in place to ensure that foundations are not simultaneously inundated with requests from JMU. To keep this running smoothly, please contact us before contacting a foundation or corporation.

Please submit a request via email to

Step 4: Write a Letter of Inquiry

Foundations will often ask for a letter of inquiry or letter of intent (both known as an LOI) as the first step in the solicitation process. In essence, an LOI is a concise proposal addressing the same topics that a full proposal would. After reviewing the applicant's LOI, the foundation will determine whether they would like to receive a full proposal.

As a concise presentation of your project, it is imperative that your LOI is designed to inspire the foundation to consider funding your project. From your research, you should know the foundation's priorities, so be sure to make the connection clear between your goals and their interests. Assume that the proposal will be read by non-experts or educated generalists. The LOI should be clear and concise, a maximum of 2 pages, and include the following components:


  1. This is your summary statement. It should stand alone to tell the reader what you want to do and what you hope the reader will do (i.e., consider funding the project).
  2. Answer the following: Who wants to do what? Who will be helped or served? How much is being requested, and is this a portion of a larger project?
  3. You may want to make the connection between the foundation's priorities and your project here.
  4. In general, keep it short but compelling. You will explain the need for the project, rationale, methodology, outcomes and your organization's credibility later.

2.    STATEMENT OF NEED (1-2 paragraphs)

  1. This paragraph will answer the question of "why" you are undertaking this project. What is the "negative" that is occurring or issue you are addressing?
  2. Briefly, why does this matter in the area in which you will be working?
  3. If you have a compelling statistic, use it!
  4. Note who will benefit from your project or the public good achieved.

3.    PROJECT ACTIVITIES (METHODS) (2-4 paragraphs)

  1. This section will answer the "what" and "how" of your project.
  2. Give an overview of the activities involved, including details, as space allows.
  3. Highlight if your approach is novel or replicable, or why it will be effective.
  4. Indicate whether you will be collaborating with other organizations and what their roles will be. Be specific about who will be doing what.
  5. Focus on the benefits your project will offer and the alignment with the foundation's giving priorities.

4.    OUTCOMES (1-2 paragraphs)

  1. State the specific outcomes that you hope to achieve.
  2. Specifically, how will you evaluate whether you have achieved these outcomes?

5.    CREDIBILITY (1-2 paragraphs)

  1. Introduce your organization and add relevant history.
  2. Give awards, rankings or other measures that establish credibility and competence.
  3. Explain why your institution or staff is best equipped to carry out the project.

6.    BUDGET (1 paragraph)

  1. State the total cost of the project and what you are requesting from the foundation. As space allows, indicate broad categories of funding (i.e., staff, travel, equipment).
  2. Include other sources of funding, cash, pledges and in-kind. Include what your organization will contribute, and do not overlook the value of in-kind contributions from your organization or collaborators.

7.    CLOSING (1 paragraph)

  1. Ask for permission to submit a full proposal
  2. Offer to give any additional information the foundation might need.
  3. Provide a contact name and information for follow-up.
  4. Have the highest ranking person available sign the letter (even if they are not the contact person) to indicate institutional support.
  5. Please email a copy to CFR for placement in the central files.

*The material above was adapted from information from the Independence Community Foundation

CLICK HERE for sample LOIs>

Do not forget to proofread carefully. Spelling or grammatical errors will neither set a good impression nor instill confidence in your ability to carry out the project. Ask at least one other person to read the letter for general comments and suggestions before you send it out!

Finally, do not forget to communicate to CFR that the LOI has been sent.

Step 4: Write the Proposal

Foundation practices vary widely. While some require the submission of a letter of intent (or letter of inquiry), others may by-pass that step and request a full proposal. As with the letter of intent, you should very carefully review the foundation's website for guidelines, deadlines, and the foundation's funding priorities.

As you begin, consider the following:

  • Learn who your audience is and write accordingly—it will usually range from educated generalists to an expert panel.
  • Get to the point. Your cover letter, executive summary or introductory paragraph should concisely summarize your project and specific request for funding.
  • Consider your reviewer: utilize simple graphs and pictures, appropriate "white space," 1-inch margins, and 12-point font.
  • The way a project is described internally at JMU will need to be re-conceptualized for external readers. In other words, arguments made for internal approval are not usually the same ones that will persuade an outside funder to make a grant.
  • As an overview, most proposals should include the following:
    • Cover letter
    • Executive Summary
    • Introduction to the Organization and project
    • Explanation of why the project should be undertaken (also known as the Problem or Need Statement)
    • The activities you will undertake to address the stated problem or need
    • Description of what will be done, who will do it, and when
    • Project goals, anticipated outcomes, and how they will be evaluated
    • Project budget

The Basic Proposal    

The Foundation Center offers excellent, brief instructions> on preparing a foundation proposal. Please realize that most proposals contain the same basic information, but some foundations will have their own application and unique process—such as an online application or a special format that they would like for you to use. Your proposal will vary in length and style depending on the funder and the complexity and scope of your project.

If you have any doubt, please contact CFR to discuss the foundation you are approaching and what style may best suit them. We are always happy to answer any questions, provide you with feedback, or review your proposal as you progress!  

Who should be the Applicant?

The proper applicant will depend on the following criteria. If you are at all unsure, please give us a call!

The applicant for your proposal should be the James Madison University Foundation when:

  • the grantor receives no substantial benefit in exchange for the grant (no rights to research results, intellectual property, etc.); and
  • the grantor relinquishes control of the funds.
  • if you are soliciting endowed funds, scholarships funds or capital support, the James Madison University Foundation should be the applicant.

The applicant for your proposal should be the James Madison University (Office of Sponsored Programs) when:

  • the grant proposal requests salary support; or
  • the proposal includes an itemized budget to be administered; or
  • the grantor will receive a benefit of value in exchange for the grant; or
  • the funder requires a technical report of research results; or
  • the grant will fund clinical research; or
  • funds that are not used must be returned.

    When applying on behalf of JMU, the Office of Sponsored Programs will ultimately submit the application. We ask that you allow at least 2 weeks' notice prior to your desired submission date so that the necessary documentation may be obtained.

The Cover Letter:

There are times when a foundation will require a cover letter signed by a dean or the president. Contact CFR as soon as you know that you will be in need of this so that we may facilitate it for you promptly.


Foundations usually require that you include institutional documents, available on our Tools Page. If you find you are in need of something different, or just are not certain what to provide, please call. 

Online Applications:

In the event of an online proposal submission, follow these guidelines:

  • See above for information on the proper applicant. 
  • Often, the electronic version cannot be saved. It is strongly recommended that you create a Word document for editing and review purposes and later transfer the information to the online application.
  • Please, let us know of your submission and forward a copy of the proposal to the Office of Corporate and Foundation Relations. 


The funder may specify the format in which they would like the budget presented. If not, your format must simply present the budget expenses clearly. Budgets will vary widely in intricacy depending upon the complexity and scope of the project. If you are submitting a full proposal, the budget must contain all of the costs associated with the project. Please see our Tools page for sample budgets.  

Step 6: Submit the Proposal

Congratulations, you are ready to submit! Before submitting your proposal, please do the following:

  1. Alert one of the CFR Staff your submission.
  2. Email a copy of the proposal to CFR at

Follow the submission guidelines of the funder and make sure that you keep a copy of the proposal. It is a good idea to call the foundation within a short time to make certain that the proposal made it into the right hands, learn what any "next steps" might be, and ask when a decision will be made.

Special Instructions for an Online Applications: In the event of an online proposal submission, follow these guidelines:

  • See Step 5 for information on the proper applicant and approvals.
  • As the electronic version cannot be saved, it is strongly recommended that you create a Word document for editing and review purposes and later transfer the information to the online application.
  • Let your contact know of your submission and forward a copy of the proposal to the Office of Corporate and Foundation Relations.

Step 7: Stewardship

The stewardship of a donor is the process of maintaining an engaged relationship with the donor and bringing them increasingly closer to JMU. This can occur in many ways; however, the stewardship of foundations often involves reporting and falls into two broad categories: (1) qualitative, which is the storytelling that confirms to the donor that the investment was a sound one because the support is making a difference in lives of people or the mission of JMU, and (2) quantitative, which communicates that JMU fulfilled its fiduciary responsibilities and deployed the funding as the foundation intended.

Sometimes, a foundation will specify the format in which they would like a project report given. If not, there is no mandated format and the content will vary widely depending on the complexity of the project. However, you should always give an accounting of the expenditure of the funds granted, express your gratitude, and address how you have accomplished the goals and objectives set forth in your proposal.

We highly recommend that you include pictures in your stewardship report--as they can often convey more than words could. Consider also including a quote from a project participant or the principle investigator. Remember, foundations are led by "people" and they should feel that they made a worthwhile investment when they chose to fund JMU. Consider the following:

  • Address the outcomes that your application proposed.
  • Be forthcoming about which goals and outcomes were met and those which fell short. Explain any extenuating circumstances.
  • Explain any lessons learned.
  • Express gratitude.
  • Account for the expenditure of the funds.

Two final key points:

  1. Even if the foundation does not request a report, send one!
  2. Even if your grant was denied, it is good stewardship to send a thank you letter to the foundation. They did, after all, take the time to carefully review your proposal and consider your project. Your appreciation of that fact will reflect favorably on JMU and your professionalism.

Back to Top