What size grants do private and corporate foundations make to your organization?
$10,000? $50,000? Much more?
Most likely, grant funders are some of your most major donors.
Like with your top individual donors, your grant funders should receive personal interaction and a tailored approach. Here are four reasons you should be approaching grant funders more like major donors:
1. Just like it usually takes more than a year-end appeal letter to recruit a major donor, getting grants is about more than the written grant proposal.
The world’s most perfectly and persuasively written grant proposal is not a magic bullet to grant funding. That’s because funders rarely award grants based simply on the grant proposal alone.
An attempt at relationship building should always come before applying for a grant. In fact, submitting a cold grant proposal is usually a sure way to get rejected. Organizations that designate “grant writing” to a single person who’s planted in front of a computer are wasting time and resources. Grant seeking should be a dynamic, organization-wide endeavor that engages an organization’s chief leaders, program managers, and development staff to decide grant funding needs and priorities, chart an overall grants strategy, and participate in specific relationship building steps with specific funders.
2. Grants may technically come from institutions, but proposals get reviewed and decisions are made by thinking, feeling people.
It’s within your control to impress, excite, persuade, or conversely, to offend or disappoint, a foundation program officer or trustee just as it is with individual donors. That’s why it’s as important to have a customized plan to approach each potential funder just as you might have for each major donor prospect.
Unless a grant maker explicitly prohibits personal outreach, attempt to make a personal connection by phone or email before you apply. Do your homework by thoroughly reviewing information about the funder and prepare what you’ll say and what you’re asking for. This call is about beginning a conversation and—hopefully—a relationship. Inappropriate reasons to call a program officer would be to flat-out ask if the foundation will fund your request or to ask questions that are addressed in the funder’s guidelines.
Appropriate reasons to call could include addressing genuine uncertainty about your organization’s eligibility, clarifying a confusing aspect of the application process, or even requesting a face-to-face introductory meeting. Demonstrate your intention to build a relationship. For example, you could ask for a meeting by explaining: “I know your foundation is concerned about XYZ in the community. We’re concerned about that too and have a plan to address it. Could we meet to trade ideas? I’d like to hear your perspective.”
3. Just as many individual donors want to align themselves to organizations that are respected by their peers, funders want to support organizations with strong partnerships and good reputations.
Local grant makers in particular are often deeply tapped in to community networks. The opinion and influence of people both you and the funder know can make a great deal of difference.
If your organization has a major gifts program, you have likely designated a portfolio manager for each individual donor or prospect. It’s important to do the same for your active grantors and prospective funders. The grants manager may maintain relationships with funders once they’re established, but it can be strategic for the executive director, a board member, or program director to forge new relationships with new funders. Look for connections you have in common. A place to start is by asking staff and board members to review lists of the trustees and program officers of every grant funder on your list.
4. Funders want and deserve to be appreciated just like individual donors.
Winning a grant can be long, hard work. When the good news comes—we got the grant!—celebrate your accomplishment but remember that the work of stewardship is just beginning.
Just as individual donors have unique preferences, funders differ in how they want to be acknowledged and engaged after making a grant. At the very least, follow through on the promises you make, which may include tracking the outcomes you said you’d track, acknowledging the foundation publicly as they require, and reporting results according to the their requested schedule and format. If something changes that impacts your ability to fulfill the terms of the grant—say you lose a key program staff person—don’t wait until the report is due to deliver the news. Reach out to inform and involve the funder in these changes. They may even offer useful advice, support, or connections.
How can you go the extra mile? For many funders it’s appropriate to do more than just file reports. Are you having a special event or celebrating a program milestone? Invite representatives of the foundation to attend as your guests. Does your project make the news? Send a news clipping with a handwritten note.
Bottom line: funders are people too. Grants don’t come about by hitting the “submit” button on a grant application from your desk chair. Grants come as a result of growing and tending relationships with the real human beings at foundations, and providing them the opportunity to be inspired by and engaged in your organization’s important mission and work.
Lauren worked as a filmmaker, attorney, college instructor, and nonprofit development executive before founding Grants Plus in 2007 to help more worthy causes raise more funds. With Lauren’s leadership, Grants Plus has received the Weatherhead 100 Upstart Award for three consecutive years, a 2016 Smart Women "Progressive Organization" Award from Smart Business, and an Inside Business Northeast Ohio Success Award in 2014. Lauren is past president of the Grant Professionals Association Ohio–Northern Chapter as well as an active member and former board member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) Greater Cleveland Chapter. She is an alumna of Cleveland Bridge Builders and was named one of the “Top 25 Under 35” in 2007 by Inside Business Magazine. To fulfill her childhood dream of becoming a puppy washer, she volunteers at Love-A-Stray dog shelter where she walks dogs and cleans cages. Lauren holds a BS in Telecommunications from Ohio University and a JD from Cleveland State University, Cleveland Marshall College of Law, where she remains active in the Alumni Association.