Skip to Content

Letters of Inquiry: The Window to Opportunity

The Purpose, Process and Tips for a Stronger Submission

June 18, 2024

by Bryan Fahrbach, Associate Program Officer and Jennifer Zeisler, Senior Program Director

As a national foundation whose North Star goal is to eliminate equity gaps in postsecondary completion by 2040 so underserved learners have greater opportunity for social and economic mobility, ECMC Foundation uses a strategic framework to guide its grantmaking.

With this clarity of purpose comes clarity of practice—and it all begins with a Letter of Inquiry (LOI). Below we’ll share more about why LOIs are important and how you can make yours as strong as possible.

The LOI’s Purpose: A Funding Snapshot

Think of the LOI as your first introduction to the Foundation. Whether requested by the Foundation or received as an unsolicited submission, an LOI serves an important purpose—to provide information about the organization seeking funding and share details on their proposed project.

These details and concepts are important for decision-making. ECMC Foundation funds project-based and reform-oriented requests, meaning proposed projects should have detailed budgets, defined timeframes, listed activities and intended outcomes. Most importantly, there should be a clear change for students, institutions and/or systems that is generated as a result of the project. We do not provide general operating support.

Regardless of how LOIs are cultivated or when they are received, they’re all submitted and tracked through an online form which connects to the Foundation’s database to streamline data collection and ensure a more equitable review process. When reading a submitted LOI, our Foundation team works to understand the project’s activities and how it will impact postsecondary outcomes, especially for students from underserved backgrounds.

The Process: From Submission to Formal Proposal

ECMC Foundation’s open application and rolling deadline make us unique among national foundations. Our LOI process is open, meaning organizations do not need to be invited to apply. Each LOI, whether solicited or not, is processed the same way internally. And there’s no specific timeline for submission – LOIs are accepted and reviewed on a rolling basis (all year long), which means there are no deadlines or missed windows of opportunity. Once an LOI is received, the Foundation team assesses the request to confirm it meets basic eligibility criteria and aligns with the Foundation’s North Star and Mission. If alignment is confirmed, the LOI is assigned to a Program Officer based on the proposed project’s connection to one of our initiatives or our Strategically Responsive portfolio. The Program Officer assesses the project scope and evaluates how the request connects to ECMC Foundation’s strategic framework, aligns to an existing strategy and advances systemic change in higher education. From there, the LOI is reviewed by the Foundation’s leadership team, who decide which LOIs advance to the next stage—a formal grant proposal.

Adapting to a Changing Field: Strategically Responsive Funding

While our current initiatives allow us to work toward systemic change through specific areas of focus, our Strategically Responsive grantmaking supports a broader range of projects that are all connected to one or more of our strategic priorities. By reserving a significant amount of funding for these projects, we can be nimble when we receive proposals that excite and inspire us.

Tips for a Stronger LOI

With a very specific North Star goal and commitment to advancing systems change, it’s important to make your LOI as robust and compelling as possible. Here are some tips to strengthen your LOI, making it more likely to advance to a formal proposal.

  • Confirm eligibility. Review our How to Apply page, which includes a list of projects which are not generally funded. Of specific note: ECMC Foundation does not fund efforts for K-12 students, including college access programs that improve enrollment rates, or support programs for graduate students.

  • Explain the connection. Make sure your LOI explains how your project aligns with our North Star goal and works to improve persistence and completion outcomes for students in credit-bearing postsecondary certificate or degree programs.

  • Tell us about your organization. Describe why your organization is well-positioned to complete the project. Include some information about related previous projects, the staff members who will be leading the project and their relevant expertise, and relationships you have with others doing similar work, including institutions, other nonprofit organizations and/or funders.

  • Limit statement of need context. Use the project summary field (with a limit of approximately 1,000 words) to clearly describe the activities for which you are requesting support and keep context regarding the challenge your project seeks to address to a minimum. When describing the need, be specific to help us understand what your project would directly address.

  • Share high-level goals and intended outcomes. Articulate the project’s ultimate goals and outline outcomes that are meaningful and measurable within the project period. This could include sharing the number of individuals or institutions you plan to serve or explaining how things will be different at the end of your project.

  • Explain your plans for the funding. Provide a clear budget breakdown of the requested amount into high-level categories, such as personnel, technology, communications and evaluation. Also, indirect costs must not exceed 10% of direct costs.

  • Describe the population, geography, and/or intervention. Articulate if the proposed project will serve a certain population, reach a specific geography, or employ a designated intervention. Make sure it’s clear if the project will pilot an innovative approach or scale a promising practice.

  • Ensure project activities and/or outcomes will reach a wide audience. Include information about the number and characteristics of the individuals and/or institutions you will engage in the project and/or reach with project learnings. Generally speaking, those efforts with the potential to reach large numbers of individuals (students, faculty, and/or staff) across a system or network have a greater chance of being funded than projects that serve a single institution.

  • Highlight how your project will advance systemic change. Ensure the proposed project will work to shift the conditions (e.g., policies, practices, resources) which hold a problem (such as those barriers impeding student success) in place, rather than merely alleviating the symptoms of the problem.

  • Share your plan to evaluate and disseminate your learnings. Capture learnings (which can be done internally) and share them with the field. If your program is predominantly a direct services program, it’s especially important to show a connection to systemic change through an evaluation and dissemination component.

The Next Step: Formal Proposal

LOIs that most closely reflect ECMC Foundation’s strategic priorities will be invited to submit a full grant proposal for consideration. A Foundation staff member may ask applicants to meet (virtually or in-person) or request additional information in writing before advancing an LOI to the proposal phase. The entire grant proposal process—from first contact to final approval—can take several months; but the effort is well worth it if the project advances our collective goal of eliminating equity gaps in postsecondary completion.

Back to News