A query letter is often the first written communication between you and a foundation funder. The purpose of such a letter is to give the funder a quick sense of who you are and what you’re seeking, and to find out whether you should take the next step in the proposal process.
Other names for a query letter include “letter of interest” and “letter of inquiry” (LOI).
Many foundations require that a query letter be submitted (often online) as the first step in the funding process. In some cases, a grants officer may ask you to submit a query. And if you have tried but failed to make personal contact with a foundation staffer (as discussed at length in Effective Fundraising for Nonprofits), sending a query letter may be your next-best alternative.
The sensible first step is to find out whether the foundation has published guidelines for query letters on its website or in printed form, and check whether it has created an online submission format. If not, don’t worry: Query letters are short (one to three pages) and follow a fairly standard format.
Your letter should be designed to inspire the foundation and grants officer to ask for more information. Don’t, however, hold back good material to include later as a “surprise” in the full grant proposal. If you don’t highlight your project’s best features in your query letter, you probably won’t be invited to submit a full proposal.
The key elements of a query letter are:
1. Your organization's identity and purpose. In the opening paragraph, give your organization’s name and an overview of the reason for your letter—namely, to seek a particular amount of funding for a purpose or project that you briefly describe. Don’t be coy; you’re writing an organization that expects people to ask for money. And don’t beat around the bush when explaining why your proposal fits within the funder’s mission and guidelines. Explain directly how your project will help the funder further its own goals.
You also want to establish that your organization will be able to accomplish the proposed project. To do this, it’s helpful to provide the names and qualifications of key project staff. If someone at the foundation knows your organization and thinks well of it, that’s also worth mentioning.
2. What your organization is all about. In the next paragraph, briefly describe your organization’s mission, history, and current programs. Your focus should be on establishing your organization’s credentials, and in particular its ability to identify and meet community needs. If prominent board members have helped drive your efforts, mention their names.
3. Who or what needs your organization's help. Here you get to the heart of the matter: the community need that your organization seeks to address. Find the most powerful way to establish that such a need exists. That could involve statistical data, vivid examples, or both.
Be precise about the who, what, and where of those you’ll be serving. Look for ways to tie your project to the foundation’s purposes and the people it hopes to serve.
4. How your organization will provide the needed help. Present a detailed and convincing account of what you’ll be doing and how it will meet the community need you’ve identified. Explain how you’ll go about measuring the project’s success. If you haven’t already done so, include the names and titles of the main project staff who will bring your project to fruition.
5. Other supporters or your organization. If you’ve garnered commitments from other grantors or donors, mention them. You might also indicate who else you’ll be approaching for support.
6. A wrap-up. Briefly recapitulate the goal of your project. If possible, mention a few new items, such as planned future steps or mutual contacts, and thank the funder for considering your request.
The letter should be signed by your organization’s executive director or board chairperson. Don’t include attachments unless the foundation’s guidelines request them.