Tips on Writing a Letter of Intent (LOI) and Grant Application

By Suzanne Callahan

January 1, 2017, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Planning is key to success. Think carefully about your outline and proposal.
Talk about your ideas with staff and colleagues. Good writing does not usually happen in a vacuum. Rely heavily on the guidance and experiences of those who design and implement the project for which you seek funds. This means starting the writing process early, as much as six to twelve weeks before the deadline. Set aside quality time in a comfortable place (not necessarily your office) in order to give yourself the time to think openly and creatively. Talking plays an important role in the thought process because it prompts us to brainstorm and respond to others’ ideas. It can raise staff awareness and buy-in.

Avoid the Common “Dont’s.”

  • Don’t claim to be all things to all people. The whole world is probably not going to change if you get this grant. Don’t promise to achieve world peace or transform the entire community.
  • Don’t talk over your reader’s head. Educate the readers of your proposal. They may be unfamiliar with your issue, art form, mission, or cause. Don’t assume that funders will ask you questions. They are people, and if they don’t understand, they may not want to appear ignorant!
  • Avoid superlatives and comparisons. Be careful about saying you are the biggest, best, most innovative, etc. Instead, substantiate the merit of your organization and project, and back up your claims with facts, figures, examples, and or stories.
  • Avoid the victim mentality. Life is tough for most nonprofit organizations and artists. Your struggles are probably not that unique. If your project addresses an oppressed community or issue, then substantiate that issue or community need. Venting about past funding rejections, however, is not helpful to your organization or the funder. Your writing must connect with and relate to the reader(s) in a way that encourages their investment and buy-in.

Remember the basics of good writing.

  • Use simple, clear English. Double-check your grammar or, if you feel weak in this area, ask someone else to edit your writing. Overly-long sentences lose the reader.
  • Use active verbs. “Mr. Smith is the person that will be the director” is greatly improved as “Mr. Smith will direct the program.”
  • Avoid jargon, acronyms, and technical terms. Try to ensure that the reader’s understanding of a word or term coincides with your use of it. If you must use these terms, then define them.

Ask someone outside of your organization to read your proposal. The reader should not tell you if the proposal is good or bad, merely what they think is said. Are any portions unclear? Was your reader able to understand your vocabulary? Did they grasp the main points?

Important: Why would the funder support your program? This rationale is based in your research, rather than your hopes. Has the funder supported similar activities? Does your project fit their priorities and/or market? Note that answering this question involves addressing their priorities, not yours!



Feel free to use the words below in your grant proposals. But be aware of the potential for misunderstanding. Unless you are certain that decision makers will understand them, you may need to explain their context to your project, organization, and constituency.

—————————————————- —————————————————-

“Misinterpreted” Words—those with multiple meanings, such that the funder’s (or panel’s) interpretation might differ from what you intend.


—————————————————- 2 —————————————————-

“Missed” Words—those that funders may not recognize, particularly as some may not be experts in art, culture or history.

creative process

—————————————————- 3 —————————————————-

“Misused” Words—those that are sometimes misused by arts organizations.

the young
capital campaign
focus group
Latin, Latino, Latina, Latinx


Consider this quote from Aristotle, which is as relevant today as when it was written:

Style, to be good, must be clear. Clearness is secured by using words that are current and ordinary. You must disguise your art and give the impression of speaking naturally and not artificially. Strange words and invented ones must be used sparingly and on few occasions. The aptness of language is one thing that makes people believe in the truth of your story. Their minds are drawn to the false conclusion that you are to be trusted from the fact that you seem to be talking to them. — Aristotle, The Rhetoric, written nearly 2,500 years ago


Just as Important: Why might the funder not support your program?

To answer that question, learn to think as your own devil’s advocate. What are the weaknesses, gaps, or inconsistencies in the project description, as stated in your application? As you expand and revise your application, try to address and eliminate your weaknesses, if possible, through planning, research, and dialogue with staff and community partners.

Here’s an example of how this process works for an applicant organization that seeks funding to present a performance series on gender identity:

Anticipated questions from the funder:
Does the applicant have partnerships with local LGBTQ organizations? Will the performance series reach and serve the LGBTQ community?

Weaknesses within the proposal:The applicant had not taken the time to plan this project collectively with its existing LGBTQ partners. In consequence, the application did not describe its partners’ role in the project or how their constituents would be reached.

Converting the weakness into a strength:
Applicant then reached out to community partners to discuss the project and describe their role and to confirm that artists were comfortable with the new activities. A revised, stronger proposal, incorporating that planning might read as follows:

Over the past several weeks, we have been in discussion with local colleges, museums, schools and social service organizations that address gender identity in their curriculum, programs and services. Professor Wilson, who is transgender and heads the Gender Studies program at ABC University, has agreed to host a series of panels for students from three colleges in our city. After our student matinee, the Buchanan High School will share its new curriculum, Out Teens, with students in attendance. The artists have agreed to meet with both college and high school students during the week they are in town.

Planning and research involved: Before submitting the proposal the applicant identified and addressed its weaknesses by contacting the LGBTQ partners to discuss their needs, secure their support, and design a mutually beneficial project.

Result: Applicant turned a weakness into a strength. Because the applicant provided evidence of its partnerships, the funder’s interest increased. Applicant incorporated first voice perspective, so that it was not planning a project for the LGBTQ community from a solely heteronormative place.

Next-to-Last Stop: Check the published review criteria. Review your application to ensure that it addresses every published criterion.

Last Stop: Check all application submission requirements. Ensure that you meet formatting restrictions to the letter, including margins, font size and word limits.

© Copyright Callahan Consulting for the Arts. All rights reserved.

Suzanne Callahan, CFRE, is founder of Callahan Consulting for the Arts, which, since 1996, has helped artists, arts organizations, and funders realize their vision through planning, fundraising, evaluation, and philanthropic counsel. With over 25 years of experience running funding programs, including Dance/USA’s Engaging Dance Audiences, the National College Choreography Initiative, and programs at the NEA. Callahan has taught grantwriting and advised numerous organizations in fundraising. An author and lecturer in arts evaluation, her book Singing Our Praises: Case Studies in the Art of Evaluation, published by APAP, was awarded Outstanding Publication of the Year from the American Evaluation Association.