The most important thing I ever learned about writing grants, and winning grants, I learned at a “meet the funders” panel. In response to a question about relationship building, one panelist complained that most applicants never contacted him or his foundation in any way except for the grant application itself. He continued to say that even after applicants received grants, he never heard from them except for reports (he still didn’t hear from them, just received a written report).
If you are like most development directors, this may sound painfully familiar, and you are not alone. It was then that I had an “ah ha moment” and have never dealt with foundations the same way since. I hope this article is that “ah ha moment” for you.
Everything we know about fundraising tells us that fundraising is about building relationships, but we treat foundations differently than other prospects. Why? Why aren’t we more aggressive about building relationships with foundations and why don’t we treat them with the same care and respect as any other prospect?
3 Myths about Foundations
- Foundations are intimidating. They have the money and therefore the power. I need the money and I’m afraid they won’t give it to me.
In reality, foundations exist to help non profits, and their main function is to work with non-profits to improve the community within the guidelines of their missions. If your organization is a good match for them, you are helping them fulfill their mission by reaching out to them.
- Foundations don’t want to hear from us except in the form of the proposal.
On the contrary, many foundations do want relationships with their grantees and the non-profit community in general. The foundations that don’t want to have contact or don’t have the staff capacity to accommodate it, promote this myth.
- No one at a foundation will answer my call or my questions.
Most foundation program officers consider it their job to get to know non-profit staff and support them. A major part of the job of a program officer at a foundation is to answer phone calls and emails of non-profit staff. How else will grantors develop relationships, which help them make informed funding decisions?
And, if you call a foundation and no one answers your call or your questions, so what? You’re no worse off than you were before you made the call. And if they did answer your questions, you’re a whole lot better off.
Until my “ah ha” moment, I was one of the people who had never called a foundation – and never had a relationship with anyone at a foundation. I felt the panelist that day was speaking directly to me: I was one of the people who didn’t think anyone at a foundation would actually take my call. After that career changing session, I went back to the office the next day and picked up the phone.
I prepared my questions and called my first foundation. To my surprise, the Executive Director picked up and we talked for 45 minutes! I know this was unusual, but you can only imagine what it did for my confidence and mindset about calling foundations.
Starting the Grant Process: Find Foundations that Match Your Organization
At the beginning of each year, (fiscal or calendar, it doesn’t really matter) I start by researching grants. My favorite source is the Foundation Center.
When researching foundations, the two things I look for are: 1. Do they fund in my geographic area? and 2. Do they fund the type of program that I am raising funds for? (For example: Do they fund only children’s programs or the environment, or healthcare? Is my organization a good fit/ match?)
If you can answer “Yes” to both questions, then you have a potential match. Do not ignore this fundamental information always provided on a foundations website or in their guidelines. If a foundation only funds organizations in New York, and your organization is in Texas, do not waste your time (or theirs) applying. I know this seems obvious, but you wouldn’t believe the number of times applicants ignore this information. A third question to answer is: what type of money do they give – operating, endowment, or only to programs? Is that the type of funding you’re seeking?
When researching foundations, the goal is to find as many potential good matches as you can. Once I have a good number of foundations which, on first glance, are good matches, I read the guidelines and websites more carefully, and then I rank them: Perfect Match (A), Close Match (B), and Remote match (C).
In a one person development shop, my goal is to write approximately 12 grants per year, or one per month (this number will vary, depending on how many are renewal applications versus new applications, and if any program staff or your executive director helps with the writing).
When I have 12 foundations in category “A,” then I am finished researching. I put category “C” in the trash, and file category “B” for a rainy day. If I don’t have 12 in category A, then I have more research to do.
Once I’ve found the 12 foundations I will apply to this year, I put them in deadline order. Those with no deadline – put on the top of your pile, and add the ones with deadlines to your calendar. (I’ll get back to those without deadlines.)
The 4-Step Art of Relationship Building
Step 1: Calling a foundation for the first time (before applying)
If you think your organization is a good match (for a foundation,) call and speak with a program officer to confirm that they also think your program is a good match. You can also ask about application deadlines (if they accept applications year round). Before calling, come up with a list of thoughtful, thought provoking questions. For example:
- I’ve noticed that you fund children’s programs, and we run after school programs. We’re thinking of applying for tutors for our programs. Does that sound like it would be of interest?
- We have several programs that might be a good match for your foundation. Can you tell me which you think sounds like the best match? (Then quickly explain each program.)
- Your website says you accept applications year-round. Is there a better (best) time of year to apply? (When does your board meet to review applications? Do you have a larger pot of money to give in the beginning of the year? When is the start of your fiscal year, etc.)
Although many foundations do accept applications year round, they may have better times of year to submit. For example, at the beginning of their fiscal year they may give away more than at the end of the year when they are running low on funds. Also, they probably have deadlines before board meetings which may occur annually, semi-annually, or quarterly, and if you miss a deadline, you may have to wait several months before your application is reviewed.
After your initial calls are complete you can finish the due date sort on all 12 of your applications. Ideally, you will have approximately one application per month (although some months will probably have several grants deadlines).
Step 2: Sending an application or Letter of Inquiry
Follow the guidelines provided by the foundation EXACTLY. If they ask for only a certain number of pages – stick to it. If they request a certain font or type size – do it. When applying for grants, details matter. Most importantly, stick to deadlines.
There is some basic information that almost all foundations require, so you should have it ready in advance. I prepare a file (electronic and/or paper) of “highly requested materials” that is ready whenever I need it for future applications.
The list includes:
- Mission statement
- Organization history
- Project summary
- Audited financial statements
- Most Recent Annual Report
- Project Budget
- Organization Budget
Although applying for grants can be challenging, if you have all the basic pieces of information written out in advance, then a grant application is generally not more than a complicated cut and paste job. Each application needs to be tailored to the specifications of the funder, but in most cases, you may have most of the information and attachments on hand.
Step 3: Building a relationship: The second call
After you have had your initial conversation with the grantor and you have decided to apply, the next time to call is one week after you mail your application to confirm they received it and to ask if they have any questions. Most program officers will not have any questions at that time, but you are beginning to build a relationship, and you have started to build name recognition for your charity.
This is a good time to ask when decisions will be made and when you might expect to hear. You may also invite the program officer to visit your organization and/or take them on a tour of your program or facility.
These first two phone calls have proven to be highly effective for me, as I am confident that it raised the awareness of many program officers about my organization, who then took the time to thoroughly review my application.
Not that every foundation I call wants to have a lengthy conversation with me (either the first or second time), and some simply say they haven’t gotten to my application yet and don’t have any questions, but by calling, I have reminded them that I am diligent and attentive, and I am confident that my application stands out when they get to it.
Step 4: You’ve received the grant: Don’t stop calling now
Congratulations! You’ve been awarded the grant. Send a thank you letter, now! You may also want to call or email the program officer you’ve started to build a relationship with to thank them in person – especially if you’re not the one signing the thank you letter.
Create a calendar of “events” for the year of how you will work to build your relationship with this foundation and others. For example:
- Send two newsletters per year.
- Whenever your organization appears in the newspaper, send articles.
- Invite program officers to visit your program 2-3 times per year – fundraising events, client events – graduations, programs, tour of your facility, etc.
- Send all requested reports on time.
In the event that you do not receive the grant this time around, but you believe that the foundation is a truly a good match for your organization, do steps 1-4 anyway, and apply again next year. Call the program officer to thank them for considering your application and ask if they can give you any feedback as to why your application was not funded.
These relationships will significantly increase your chances of getting the grant next time.