“Developing Relationships with Foundations”
By Cheryl Kester
Question: I’m new to the grants field. People repeatedly mention the concept of cultivating relationships. I have found this frustrating because it is very difficult to do with foundations. Would you have any tips on this?
Answer: I have had pretty much the same experience you have had. I've got two main responses: 1) Foundations are Like People–they all have different "personalities" 2) Foundations are Not Like People–don't let the major gifts guys tell you how to "cultivate" foundations
I'll address #2 first. In the grants world, submitting a proposal is considered a perfectly acceptable "relationship starter.” In many cases, you will have no relationship until you have begun the conversation by sending a letter of intent or even until your first successful proposal. Some foundations won't take meetings at all, some will meet with you once your application is being considered, and a few will allow or even encourage a pre-proposal meeting. But a large number won't talk to you unless your application gets funded. You research all you can about this organization, craft your proposal to fit their interests, send it in, and you get funded. Then, you have something to talk about.
What people who say that obtaining grants is "all about relationships" aren't telling you is that there are different kinds of relationships. If your board chair and the foundation's president have been best friends since grade school, then, yes, getting large grants from that foundation is probably all about relationships. At least the first grant was. Always vet foundation board lists with your board of directors in case there is a connection. If you happen to be the next door neighbor, ex-Sunday School teacher, or fishing buddy of a foundation director, you might not need to follow the rules. But, beware of ignoring the rules because of a perceived relationship. A foundation executive once exclaimed to my partner (whose predecessor had ignored guidelines and asked for way too much money because a board member insisted that his relationship with the foundation should trump the rules), "Don't you people understand you have to hold hands before you can get married?!?"
So, back to #1, for the rest of us who aren’t getting asked out on Friday night, here’s how it works (from "hardest to crack" to "easiest to crack"):
Foundations Administered by a Bank or Trust Company -- Scratch these off your 'relationships' list right now. Usually the donor is dead, and the trust officer has no interest in meeting you. The bank may have been bought and sold several times since the trust was created. Fill out their forms, follow the rules, and wait for them to respond, if they respond. They don't always. You can always re-apply until they tell you to stop.
Government Agencies -- See Bank Trust Departments. (Except if you apply, they will respond. . . . eventually.)
Foundations "Giving to Pre-Selected Organizations Only" -- Some people have success calling or writing and asking, "How do we become a pre-selected organization?" It hasn't worked with the ones I've tried it on; but it works for some people, so it's worth trying after you've exhausted all of your "A" list prospects.
"Initial Contact" is a Letter or Application -- If they say the first contact they want from you is a 2-page letter or their on-line form, and you're calling for a meeting, you will only annoy them. They use the LOI to weed out all of us relationship wannabes who aren't even invited to the prom. Go ahead and call if you have genuine questions about the LOI. You may find a person to talk to. It depends.
Foundations That Have Funded You Before -- OK, now you can at least claim to have a relationship. You may think that relationship is more important or more special than they do, so your mileage will vary. To some, once you're in the door, you're family. A foundation whose assets took a tumble stopped taking accepting applications from new applicants for a few years because they wanted to continue supporting their existing recipients, those with whom they had a relationship. To others, just because they funded you once is no guarantee of future interest, but you can at least usually get a meeting.
Initial Contact is a Phone Call or Meeting -- Yippee! At least you get to talk to someone. And you can't top a meeting for a first contact. Always go in ready to talk about the 2 or 3 things going on at your organization most likely to interest them, but let them guide the conversation. You may or may not get the green light to proceed to the next step.
Foundations in Your Community or Run by a Donor -- Family foundations, donor-advised funds, and others that have something in common with your organization are the types of funders you can really establish long-term relationships with because you are generally concerned about the same problems and solutions to those problems. "Great," you say. "It sounds like you're saying that unless I’m a prior grant recipient, or I know someone personally, I'm out of luck. Should I just change careers today?" No, because now I'm going to tell you how you move a funder from a "hard to crack" spot to an "easier to crack" spot.
In the foundation world, the first step in forming mutually beneficial relationships is to do excellent research. Find funders who state right up front that they are interested in what you do and they hand out the money to prove it. If they give to organizations like yours or to others in your community, they go on your “A” list. Once you've done your research, you're going to know the foundation's preferred style of first contact (do they like e-mails? do they want a letter?). Follow the rules! Don't annoy them by doing something different.
Because of your research, you're going to know what gets them excited and who they fund. Whether the first contact you are allowed is a phone call, a meeting or a "cold" proposal, foundation officers want to know that you've done your homework, have self-selected, and are a potential prospect for more conversations. It is your job to convince them of this right away, or they will be looking for a way to hang up or pitch your letter.
Look to them for guidance for the next acceptable step.
If there is no response: If initial contact is a phone call, and they're not answering, something's up. It's OK to call back a few times, but if you never get a response, you can either try a letter or application. Put them on your calendar to call next year. If you submitted an LOI or proposal, and you haven't heard back, after 3 months or so it's OK to follow up with a polite phone call to check on the status of your application.
If they ask for more information: Good sign! You get it to them as quickly as possible, answering their questions as thoroughly as you can.
If they send you forms to fill out or give you the go-ahead to submit a full application: Do everything they ask, make it look sharp and send it back early. If they are really relationship-oriented, they may want to take time to get to know you or your president or your organization before investing their hard-earned money in you. I’ve heard foundation staff say that when they ask you questions or give you tasks to perform, they’re often more interested in how you respond than in the content of your answer. But, when it is time in the process, submit your application that follows their guidelines to a "T," ask for an appropriate amount of money and will spend their money on something that's a priority with them.
If they turn you down: Send a "thanks for reviewing our proposal" letter. You may follow up with a very polite phone call (no whining!) to ask if they can suggest what you could do to improve your proposal the next time you apply. Some will talk to you. Others will say that they do not have time or that they are not allowed to give such advice. Be gracious and accept their choices about how to operate.
If they fund you, even if it's for less money than you requested: Thank them immediately and profusely. Be good stewards of the money. Report back to them promptly and thoroughly on the difference their money made. If they have a waiting period before you can reapply, observe it. Then go back to "initial contact" and start the process over. NOW you have a relationship. Invite me to the wedding."
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