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Finding More Foundation Support - Your Questions Answered

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After Margy-Ruth and Perry Davis presented a webinar – “How to Tap Foundation Support during COVID-19” – we received some great questions, and wanted to share them — and our responses — with you. 

Let’s get to it!

I’m finding it very difficult to reach program officers at foundations right now. Do you have any recommendations for getting a call back or an email response?

It’s often not how you’re contacting the funder, but who is contacting the funder. It is a much more compelling experience for the foundation rep to hear from a leader, lay or professional. 

Your best pathway for success is to find a connection to a foundation trustee or senior professional through your leadership and their broader network. A foundation rep would be more likely to hear your organization’s story from a funder, or financial peer. If there is no first or second-degree connection, draft a letter for a prestigious lay leader to sign. This should be someone who is known in the community or whose credentials command respect. We’ve found this approach effective — if it is the right signer.  

Another approach is to arrange for that important first call to come from one of your trustees. Find a one-hour time slot for a board member to set aside on her calendar when she’ll be off her phone. Then, call three or four foundations. If you reach the right person, conference the board member into the call. This way you can let the foundation professional know that a board member is calling which sounds much more impressive. At the same time, you’re making it very easy for your board member to be your advocate. Make sure your board member has a script and is ready and armed! 

Finally, if you have an email address for the foundation rep, you can ask your board member to send a note with a request for a phone call. You may have to draft the note, but it should come from the trustee’s personal account. 

Any suggestions on how to get a real response from a family foundation if you only have a mailing address?

This is a challenge many of us are having. Since family foundations are essentially individual donors, treat them as such. 

Sometimes contact information is hiding in the 990. Read the document carefully for possible clues.

If you only have a mailing address, try to be as personal as possible. That could mean that you send: 

  • a handwritten card with your contact info 
  • a brief proposal in the form of a very personalized letter with a handwritten note on top
  • A packet of tea asking them to have a cup of tea with you and hear more about your organization

Ask a board member to sign these notes, either alone or with the executive director.

Do family foundations like to receive a formal written proposal?

These are really individual donors (or their heirs) who are using a foundation as a vehicle for charitable giving. Your approach can still be professional, or “formal”, but you want to have a personal touch. Write your proposal in the form of a personal letter. Align the family’s specific funding interests with your organization’s mission and show them how you are making a difference in an area they care about. Keep it short – no more than 2 pages. 

Remember the cardinal rule: your budget needs to be solid, clear and compelling. It needs to justify your request.

My concern is for small arts organizations. How will my theater’s virtual performance be able to compete against Broadway performances? Why would you watch my production of Margaritaville virtually if you can see the Broadway one on YouTube too?

We know it’s certainly competitive for smaller production companies- and it most likely always has been. Think back to your mission and the reason your small arts organization exists. What do you offer your supporters that the larger organizations can’t? 

I imagine it’s a much more intimate experience. Perhaps you have behind-the-scenes footage you’ve never shared with your supporters. Your artists might also have videoed some scenes on their phones. Edit this material creatively  — for an insiders’ look into your work — and send the video to your viewers. 

Some of your artists might have social media accounts where they share their independent work. Alert your supporters to their activities. Share a clip or encourage them to follow your artists.  

Consider an online interactive experience. You might stage readings of scripts that you are considering. Ask your members and subscribers to vote on their favorites. Or you could stage an artists’ roundtable. What are your actors’ techniques for a winning performance? What are your writers’ secrets to a superb script? 

Think about what your supporters get out of your organization as opposed to others. Stay true to your mission. There are reasons you exist — remind your donors of those reasons. 

What should we do if our organization is only one-year-old and has never received foundation money?

Outside funders will have more confidence to fund you, if you demonstrate meaningful – perhaps even sacrificial – inside support. Can you say you have 100% board participation? How many other key individual funders do you have? Have they stepped up financially during this crisis? Show your prospects that they will be part of a growing circle of supporters. 

If you’re newer to the scene, clearly demonstrate the key need(s) you are filling in the community. Illustrate your value with gripping stories relating the benefits your constituents receive. Show them that their investment will be worthwhile. Have you been able to adapt to the current circumstances and still provide services to your constituents? What is the impact of COVID on your organization? Why do you need support now? 

Can you elaborate on the need to add a Covid-19 section to your webpage?

Generate a brief “impact” report that’s front and center on your website. The report should address how COVID-19 has directly impacted your organization. 

For example, if you’re a shuttered museum, what programs have been shut? What innovative programming have you put in their place? How are you continuing to be relevant?  What other compelling stats can you share? 

If you’re not a “COVID relevant” organization, be very clear how the pandemic has affected your organization. If you’ve adapted your services during the last 3 months and are still fulfilling your mission to some capacity, share that success story(ies)! Show the website visitor how you are still needed. You exist for a reason. Tell them why. 

Our organization ends up spending a lot of time handwriting thank you notes… Do you think that is still important or is a personalized email sufficient?

In a time where we are all inundated with digital content and emails, handwritten notes are a wonderful touch! If you’re nervous the note might not reach the donor, since many people are escaping to various homes and cities, take a picture of your handwritten note before you send it. You can then check-in with them via email in a week or two to make sure they got your note (and attach it just in case). They will surely appreciate the effort! 

How can we find donor-advised funds that will fund my organization?

Connect with your local community foundations. Many of these community foundations provide DAF services. Once you are in the community foundation’s giving portfolio, you will be on their radar. 

For local family foundations who do not accept unsolicited asks, is there any evidence that they are more open to cold approaches now?

Everything goes right now. There are foundations that are feeling a strong pull to action and want to support more organizations outside their typical portfolio. Others are focusing on their current grantees to help them survive and thrive.  

While many foundations say they do not accept unsolicited proposals, with the right contact or connection, you can still open the door. Is there a board member or someone in their network that is either a prominent figure in the community or knows someone on the foundation board? Having that person reach out would certainly improve your chances and would be most effective. Remember though, your organization should still fit the scope of their funding priorities! Always make sure to see if there is a website and whether the mission may have changed in light of the pandemic. 

When placing follow-up calls on proposals that were sent to foundations, is it better for the executive director or the grant writer/manager to reach out to the foundation?

It is a much stronger statement to the foundation to have your ED, the leader of the organization, speak to potential funders. However, we suspect you’re asking because your ED may be gun shy. Follow-up phone calls can be arduous – especially until you reach someone at the foundation who has any type of decision-making power or power to act on your proposal.

As a first step, give your ED a handful of calls to make where there’s the greatest chance for success. 

For the others, a good compromise would be to have your executive director and grant writer align their schedules. Find a slot of time where your ED will not be on the phone, but can still be productive with things like answering emails, etc. During that time, your grant writer can place the follow-up phone calls. The grant writer can then say “I have my ED on the line” which is more persuasive. If the grant writer gets through, s/he can patch your ED in for the conversation. 

You mentioned we can use LinkedIn as a source to find potential funders. How is that done?

We always say that one of the best ways to find new funders for your organization is to tap into your board members’ networks. LinkedIn is a platform that gives you a list of your lay leadership’s connections, so it is naturally a great resource for nonprofits. 

One board member may have over 600 connections. To sift through these lists can be overwhelming and time-consuming. Before you gloss over the directive for this seemingly unattainable task, remember the fact that your board members are your best advocates and hopefully your most significant donors. Having a list of their peers can be considered a “gold mine” by some fundraisers. Nonprofits often purchase lists from third-party vendors, 

This is an important research project that we pursue on our clients’ behalf — and it yields helpful results. Our researchers comb through the connections of each board member, looking for certain markers of wealth, geographic relevance, corporate and board affiliations, etc. For those with the right criteria, we dig a bit deeper and research them within our subscription database for individuals. The idea is to come up with a healthy list of prospects that either has the capacity or possible interest in your organization’s cause. Then, set up a phone call with each of your board members to review their curated prospect list and discuss a possible approach for each prospect. 

There is no shortcut for this research project, but this is not a place where organizations should be cutting corners!

Any recommendations for someone who is balancing individual fundraising, communications, and programs and is also required to find grant funding? We are disease and state-specific. Looking for a way to narrow my focus.

You have many competing priorities. In terms of fundraising, increased support from your current stakeholders is most important. If you’re being asked to find “new money,” be very realistic with the foundation’s funding priorities and the mission alignment. Look at the past grantees and seriously consider whether your organization is a fit. Do your board members know the trustees of the foundations that you are going after? Finding connections and looking into your broader networks is a way to increase your success. As we said in the webinar, going cold has a lower success rate. 

We are about to report on a grant for a capital project that was completed successfully, but we are now providing the services that were in that building virtually—how do we spin that to the foundation (which only makes capital grants)?

First of all, congrats on completing a successful capital project! And even more so, congrats on being able to pivot your services during this time. You can say that while you’ve found a way to service the ongoing needs of your clients if this is a temporary solution, it is not ideal and will be much more effective in the physical space. Explain why – even if it is obvious. Be honest and transparent;  you adapted because you were forced to, but it’s not what your constituents really need in the long-term. There’s only so much you can do in this circumstance. Showing your funder that the need is still so great will make them feel wonderful that they’ve invested in your mission and organization. This transparency is key! 

And, would it be crazy to ask for emergency funds from that capital funder? 

Definitely not! Especially if you make the case above, ask away! They’ve trusted you with your grant to complete your capital project, you’ve done so. You’ve demonstrated that you can fulfill your promises and they can trust you with their money. They’ve vetted you and will certainly be more likely to give to you than a newer organization.

Do mega-foundations fund programs in non-metro areas?

Yes, especially if the program can be seen as a model that can be adapted for others in their own communities. Or, if the program adds real, proven value to its community. You would have to demonstrate that need and why you are special! 

If you have any follow-up questions or would like to talk to us about your organization’s needs, please leave us a comment below!

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