The general rule is to write the cover letter after you complete the final draft of the other proposal documents.
On the other hand, starting the cover letter can be a good way to break through writers block or procrastination at the beginning of the proposal-writing process!
Two reasons that the cover letter matters:
- The cover letter is a tangible indicator of your organization's identity and ability. The type of logo and paper that your organization uses conveys brand identity; the style of writing and word choice conveys overall organizational ability.
- The cover letter allows you to give the funder an elevator speech about the proposed project. Here, you have a great opportunity to briefly summarize the project and its importance in the world. The cover letter is also the right place within the proposal package to state how/why the project is a good fit for the foundation or funding program.*
Three ways to create stand-out cover letters:
1) Organize the cover letter following standard business formatting.
Below is a quick cheat-sheet -- visit Purdue Online Writing Lab for more complete directions.
- Your organization's logo goes at top of letter, usually centered.
- Next is the date you are sending the letter.
- Next is the "inside address" -- the program officer's name and title, and the foundation's name and address. Be sure to spell the program officer's name correctly! (Your organization's mailing address is generally included in the letterhead design, either under the logo or at the side or bottom of the page, so you don't need to type your organization's address into the letter.)
- Next is the salutation ("Dear ...") -- The letter should greet the person by last name. If the Executive Director or Board Chair is on a first-name basis with the foundation contact, they can cross out the last-name salutation and hand-write the first name (e.g., "Dear Jessinta") here.
- Next is the body of the letter -- I usually aim for four not-too-long paragraphs. The first paragraph should state the complete name of your organization and the essential fact that you are grateful to submit the enclosed proposal which respectfully requests a grant of $X for X project. The second paragraph should summarize your project in an interesting way, and make the connection between the funder's interests and the project. The third paragraph should provide contact information for the person to reach if the funder has any questions about the proposed project. The fourth paragraph should say (again) that you thank the funder for the opportunity to submit your proposal and that you look forward to further contact.
- Next is your closing (with "Sincerely," the signature block, and the signer's name and title typed under the signature).
- Last is the "Enclosures" line -- abbreviated as "Enc." This simply means that you are enclosing additional documents (e.g., the proposal narrative) with the cover letter.
2) For proposals that you will send through the mail, choose paper stock that will help tell your story.
When you're mailing a proposal, the actual sheet of paper that you print the cover letter on matters a lot.
If your organization has an environmental or resource-conscious identity, then be sure that the paper stock you use is recycled and has some type of recognizable recycled paper logo printed on it.
If your organization has a high-end brand identity in any way, then bond paper that feels good in the hand is a nice touch. (And you can certainly get recycled bond paper if you want to say, "we're a classy environmental organization.")
3) For proposals that you will send via email, make the cover letter a PDF.
If you are sending the proposal electronically by email, once you've completed the cover letter, take the extra step to save it as a PDF. (You can usually do this in Word with the save-as tool.)
Because the cover letter includes your logo and the (scanned and pasted in) signature of your Executive Director or Board Chair, you don't want to send it out into the world in a way in which it could be accidentally modified.
Saving the letter as a PDF sends the message that you are tech-savvy and that you care enough about your final product to protect it in its intended form. And that sends the nonverbal message that your organization will also appropriately care for its grant!
* Proposal ninja tip: The cover letter lets you include writing that you may have needed to cut from other parts of the proposal.
In the cases when a funder has really strict limitations on length of various proposal sections, you can use the cover letter to include text that is important but couldn't fit anywhere else. However, don't assume that the cover letter will always be read by the decision-making group--you do need to get all the truly essential information into the narrative and budget.