1. Know Your Audience
Who are you writing to? A nameless, faceless committee? A specific person? An organization?
If you can find a point of contact (this might mean doing a little research online or placing a call to HR), it's nice to address your letter to a person. However, most academic funding proposals omit any kind of salutation, except if they ask for a cover letter.
Once you have an idea of who is going to be reading your proposal, tailor your voice, tone, style, format, and content accordingly. For example, if you are a nonprofit seeking business sponsors, use plenty of quantitative data to persuade the reader that you are a good investment. If you are writing a research grant proposal, adopt the field's unique language and maintain an academic voice.
2. Introduce Yourself
Remarkably, many people struggle with this simple and essential detail. When I say introduce yourself, I mean state your name, professional or institutional affiliation, position or title, and reason for writing. You don't need to tell your life story, favorite movie, or your dog's name. This should be 1-3 sentences of who you are as (and only as) relevant to the proposal.
3. Succinctly Explain What You Do
Similarly, you need establish some context for the request you are about to make by providing a brief, but specific, description of what you do, with a little history thrown in:
My name is Jennifer Hansen and I am the Executive Director of Meals for Kids, a nonprofit organization serving King County's public elementary schools' students who rely on free lunches. I founded Meals for Kids in 2010 after learning nearly 300 students were going hungry during the day, resulting in lower test scores, behavioral problems, and an overall lack of energy. In the past 4 years, we have provided 5,442 meals for the district's qualifying students at no cost to their families.
4. What Have You Already Accomplished
Numbers, numbers, numbers! How much money have you already raised? What goals have you set and attained (or better yet, exceeded)? What sponsors do you already have on board, and what does their combined investment amount to? What kinds of results have your efforts yielded? When I'm writing a letter for a business or a nonprofit to use, I want to be able to cite hard numbers.
If you're a student writing for a research grant, you will need to explain how you are prepared to put the funding to immediate and effective use. Are you learning the language of the country you will be working in (or already fluent)? What coursework and previous publications has your project evolved out of? Who has given you money in the past to complete aspects of your research? Do you have an institutional or academic sponsor somewhere? And if so, can they provide you with a letter of support?
As an undergraduate, I double-majored in French and Political Science, graduating with honors and receiving the University of X's French Language Award in 2008. From 2009-2010, I spent a year abroad in Paris, where I significantly strengthened my speaking skills. In 2012 I devoted a summer to working in Paris's archives, where I had no problem navigating either spoken or written French. I continue to practice my French with a conversational exchange with a native-speaking classmate, as well as daily reading practice. If selected for the fellowship, Professor X of the University of Paris has agreed to act as a mentor for my project (see attached letter of support).
5. State Your Need And Its Urgency
Why should they give YOU the money?
No, really. Sit down and think about it. Why does your business, organization, nonprofit, or academic project deserve the money more than anybody else's?
Situate the significance of your proposal in immediate and long-term contexts. Consider the micro and macro-levels of your project's potential impact.
6. Detail How The Money Will Be Used
Don't write the letter or proposal before you have an itemized budget or description for allocating fundsas a reference. If someone is going to give you money - especially a large sum - you need to be prepared to explain precisely how you are going to spend it.
For every sponsor's $300 donation to our event, $150 goes directly to the animal shelter, $75 is invested into our print and media campaigns to promote local awareness about the shelter, and the remaining $75 pays for two tickets to our annual fundraiser, held at the Museum of Art on March 15, 2015, for you and a guest to attend.
7. What Does The Funder Get Out Of It?
For my business clients, I ask them to reflect on what they can do for the sponsor. Are you going to serve as an ambassador for the funder's business, organization, or institutional affiliation? Will you invite them to an event as a honored guest or speaker? Can you promise to hang, publicize, or pass out promotional materials with your sponsor's logo and recognized contribution?
If you are a applying for an academic fellowship, what's the sponsoring institution's return on investment? Will you pursue a career in academia or a job with the government? Are you going to turn your research into a solid foundation to resolve an important medical, political, or socioeconomic issue?
8. Situate In a Broader Context
I can't stress this enough: in addition to explaining what you do, how you do it, and why you do it, you must explicitly ground your work in a broader context. Many times we work in niches - and sure, it's important to carve out a small slice of a big problem so that you can realistically tackle the issue in a real and practical way. However, that niche has to mean something in the broader scheme of things.
In other words, in addition to clarifying why you care about a certain topic, you have to make the reader care too.
Putting It All Together
A sponsorship letter should rarely exceed more than a page, but an academic funding proposal might be 15 pages. There is no one right template; instead, just make sure you incorporate the points outlined above in your proposal to make it the most competitive application possible.
One of the best things you can do is look at past winning topics or proposals, or speak with other previous recipients. If you are soliciting a business sponsor, see if you can't follow up your letter with a phone call or in-person meeting.
Remember - the most persuasive proposals strike that essential balance between being extremely detailed and to the point. Show how you are a person of action and integrity, and observe how quickly your proposals are singled out as winners.