Letters of support: When, how and why to demonstrate participation

Many grant programs favor proposals that create partnerships or demonstrate that the grant-funded work will be appreciated by other organizations. When this is the case, your proposal may be improved by submitting letters of support.
In other cases, letters of support may impede a proposal by including information the reviewers find either irrelevant or not pertinent enough. When you ask an outside organization to go through the trouble of submitting a letter of support, there are steps you can take to ensure that they have the impact you require.
Avoiding superfluous letters
Including superfluous letters of support can get a proposal rejected even before it’s sent to a review committee. In many cases, requests for proposals or other documentation released by the grant maker will specify whether or not letters of support are welcome inclusions in your application. If the materials do not make this clear, you should contact a program officer or foundation representative to determine whether or not they are appropriate in your case.
Memoranda of understanding
In cases where the partnership is particularly vital to the project’s success or when a participating agency is required to provide in-kind goods and services or matching funds to support the project, it’s best that the letter of support is actually a memorandum of understanding. If there are goods and services to be provided, the dollar value of those activities should be estimated based on best practices and included in the proposal. Individuals responsible for the activities should be identified by name and title.
Letters of interest
Letters of interest may be appropriate if your proposal is for a planning grant or for a pilot project designed for expansion pending initial success. Letters of interest merely need to state that the organization sees potential in the project and is interested in participating. More specific criteria pending their participation may be spelled out.
Letters of support
Letters of support may indicate the intention to participate in the project, outline the nature of that participation (similar to a memorandum of understanding), list any resources to be shared or donated during the project period, or all of the above. If the participating organization is contributing resources, they should briefly be listed in addition to their inclusion in the proposal and project budget. Redundancy and clarity, particularly when multiple organizations are involved, generally strengthen a proposal.
In some cases, it may be appropriate to outline or allude to any prior joint projects. This can be as simple as including a line that states something along the lines of: “As we have benefited from Non-Profit Organization’s programming in the past, particularly through their Great Ideas Initiative, we welcome this new opportunity.”
General tips
Of course, every funder has different expectations, every grant program has a different mission and every proposed project has different needs. Still, there are some rules of thumb that can be followed to help maximize the efficacy of your letters of support.
Letters should be short and sweet. They should not raise any new information that is not already explicated in full in the proposal.
This is not to say that they shouldn’t be substantive. If the participating agency will be contributing to the program, rather than just using it, the nature of that contribution needs to be outlined.
All letters should be printed on the letterhead of the organization signing the letter.
Receipt of letters of support can be expedited by providing the signing organization with a draft and encouraging them to make modifications to personalize their response.
Personalization is important. Re-viewers are accustomed to form letters. A letter of support that conveys enthusiasm will certainly lend force to your argument.
Don’t overdo it. A few well-crafted letters are almost always better than a dozen generic ones.
Choose your contributors wisely. Sometimes name recognition can be helpful, but only if the contributor’s involvement is in the best interests of the project or if the contributor is qualified to comment on the project’s potential.
Don’t give your partners too little lead-time, particularly ifthey will provide any resources to the project.
Unless a particular individual within the organization has exemplary qualifications with which to judge the proposed project, the organization’s most senior official should sign the letter. If resources are to be allocated to the project, the organization’s chief executive must sign the document.
Letters of support can be viewed as a waste of reviewers’ time—or they can add authority, immediacy and enthusiasm to a grant proposal. They can demonstrate need and the potential for success, and indicate careful planning. They can, if used correctly, be one of the most persuasive parts of your grant application.
Kara Mitzel works in non-profit development and is a consultant to Grants Office LLC in Rochester, NY, a national grants consulting firm specializing in homeland security funding.

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