Why Letters of Support are Like Bridesmaids

I got married a couple of years ago, and though I didn't have bridemaids per se, there were a number of women who were there for me in the lead-up to and during the wedding (Dorothy, Ellen, Holly, Katie, Rhea, Sarah--you know who you are!). I'm very grateful to these ladies for the help they gave me, and while I would never compare dear friends to letters of support included with a grant application... I'm going to do just that in this post.

So, without further ado (is my microphone working?), here are three reasons why letters of support are like bridemaids, and three tips for recruiting bridesmaids and/or organizations to provide letters of support:

Reason 1: It is customary to include them.

Bridesmaids are an iconic part of a wedding. Sure, you can get hitched without them, but no one will fault you for including them. The same goes for letters of support with grant applications.

Typically, letters of support are an expected part of the grant proposal package. Funders like to see these letters, and as long as they are substantive and provided by credible, appropriate organizations (more on that in the three tips below), they can only make your wedding/grant proposal more memorable.

Reason 2: They've got your back.

Did you know that, according to some cultural historians, bridesmaids were originally meant to be decoys for the bride--so that the bride couldn't be distinguished from the crowd and picked off by an evil spirit?

Hopefully your proposals aren't in danger of falling prey to evil spirits, but regardless, a good letter of support will speak to your organization's strengths and highlight what is unique and valuable about the proposed project.

Reason 3: They help tell your story.

When I attend a wedding, I always learn new and wonderful things about the bride and groom from their wedding party. Bridesmaids, when chosen from different eras of the bride's life, represent different facets of her life experience and personality. Similarly, letters of support can demonstrate the depth and breadth of a nonprofit's role in the community and the broad impact of the project.

For that reason, it makes good sense to ask diverse organizations for letters of support. For example, if your proposal requests funding for a job-training project, you could work to secure four distinct letters:

  1. A letter from the research university in your region that tracks employment trends and has advised you on the types of jobs to train for;
  2. A letter from a local grassroots organization that provides social services to your target population and will refer these people to your project;
  3. A letter from a statewide advocacy coalition that pledges to use service numbers and case studies from your project to persuade policymakers to support future training efforts; and
  4. A letter from a local business that employs people in the industry for which you are training, is advising on the project's methods by serving on its steering committee and will provide internships and job interviews for program participants.

I suggest three rules of thumb to remember when recruiting bridesmaids and/or partners to provide letters of support for your grant application.

Tip 1: You should choose them judiciously, and plan for redundancy.

Your proposal will look more polished and complete if it includes letters of support. The presence of letters is a nonverbal testimony to your nonprofit's ability to work productively with partners towards a tangible outcome.

In addition, letters of support are a reflection of your organization. If you feel hesitant about the credibility or reputation of an organization, trust your gut and avoid asking for a letter of support from this group.

At the same time, do be sure to ask for more letters than you actually need. Promised letters can fall through, or be provided in unusable form. On the day before your proposal is due, you'll be thankful to have an extra letter on hand to fill in for that promised letter that never materialized.

Tip 2: You shouldn't make them do all the work.

Miss Manners (Judith Martin) reminds us that, "the bridesmaids' only duties are to make a special fuss over the bride by gathering around her at the wedding and, in the weeks before, by pretending to be interested in all the wedding details. It is also nice, but not obligatory, for them to plan a girlishly informal gathering—a luncheon or shower—for her beforehand."*

Similarly, providing a letter of support is basically a ceremonial favor. It's your proposal, and it's your responsibility to carry out the bulk of the work that makes the letters possible. I suggest that as proposal writer, you draft the letters for your partners, and make it easy for the partner to get the letter to you, as detailed below.

Draft the letters for your partners. Something that surprised me when I was a nonprofit newbie was the fact that applicants "ghostwrite" letters of support for their partners. Now I routinely write rather detailed letters for partners, and have never gotten pushback on this. Rather than being affronted by your presumption to speak for them, busy partners will be grateful that they don't have to do the extra work of drafting original text. If they don't like something you write, they can change it.

But don't fall into the trap of writing a single form letter that you send to all partners! Most partners will use the text exactly as you provided it and won't write additional text, meaning that you will end up with four identical support letters, which won't impress your funder at all. Even worse, if your form letter requires the partners to fill in their own organizations' names, someone will overlook this and provide you with a lovely letter on letterhead with a signature, that closes with the line, "Insert name of organization here enthusiastically supports the proposed project and looks forward to partnering in its implementation." You won't be able to use that letter.

Make it easy for the partner to get the letter to you. Offer to pick up the signed letter from the partner's office, if you can. If the partner wants to send it by fax, make sure your fax machine is on and working! My preferred way to receive support letters is by PDF through email, but not all partners will have access to a scanner, so don't insist on this.

Tip 3: You should stand ready to return the favor someday.

Do expect to be asked to provide future letters of support to the organizations from which you're requesting letters. And when you provide those letters, you can model the type of behavior you want to see in your nonprofit community: accountability, attention to detail and high ethical standards!

For a highly cynical and amusing essay on why letters of support are the Pokémon cards of nonprofits (because they are worth little and are traded freely), see Seliger & Associate's "Grant Writing Confidential" post on nonprofit collaborations.

For more great advice on how to produce excellent letters of support, read this post by Veronica Robbins, the Grant Goddess. She also produced an info-rich podcast on this topic, well worth your listen.

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* Martin, Judith (2005). Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, Freshly Updated. Kamen, Gloria. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. pp. 383.