- As printed in our regular column in Westchester Business Journal -

Relationships matter first, grants second


Most fundraisers for annual campaigns, major gifts and capital campaigns will tell you that it is the relationship that matters most, then the “ask”. If a relationship has been cultivated and nurtured, the “ask” will be more successful. This same standard applies to raising money through grants. Foundation and corporate grants are the single most important source of revenue for many nonprofit organizations and often the lifeblood of smaller organizations. In the last 2 years, the ability to secure grants is more competitive because of decreases in available grant dollars, and increases in funding needs for essential services and the use of online applications resulting in more applications per RFP. Successful grant cultivation and stewardship begins long before the first grant proposal is sent.

Setting the stage for a successful grantor/grantee partnership requires a two-prong cultivation strategy involving both Board and senior staff members. You can take these concrete steps now to build strong relationships with funders:

Do your research. Identify realistic partners who support your geographic focus and match your mission and interests so you can tailor your ask to their values and priorities. The Foundation Center’s Foundation Directory Online is an excellent source to search for foundation grant prospects (http://www.foundationcenter.org.) Remember to look at a foundation’s 990 form at Guidestar.org to see what and whom they have funded within the past 2 years. Don’t rely on a foundation’s guidelines alone.

Encourage board leadership to participate in cultivation and solicitation. After thorough grant prospect research, develop a cultivation and stewardship plan for viable prospects and organize a team of key senior staff and board members to be accountable for plan implementation. At your next board meeting, distribute a list of recommended foundation prospects, including program officers and foundation board members and/or trustees. Have board members capitalize on their connections through phone calls or personal meetings accompanied by your Development Director or Executive Director. When the time is right to submit a written grant proposal, encourage board members to attach a personal note to his/her foundation highlighting why your program/agency should be funded.

According to a 2004 study by Saadia Faruqi, who sent questionnaires to management, staff and consultants of 47 nonprofits with budgets from less than $500,000 to over $5 million, 83% of respondent boards had some kind of personal or professional relationship with a private or corporate foundation (25.6% with 1 to 3 foundations and 30.8% with more than 10 foundations). 51.5% of the 84.6% of respondents who indicated that board relationships were crucial to being funded also revealed that in the last fiscal year 1 to 3 grants were obtained due to a well-connected board; 24% obtained 7 to 10 grants.

During a panel discussion this spring on grant making in the new economy at Westchester Association of Development Officers’ annual conference, panelist Adam Kintish, Retail Market Manager and VP, TD Bank, discussed the importance of meeting with the Development Director, CEO and Board members of a nonprofit before considering a grant application, to provide a deeper understanding of the foundation’s goals and to foster communication and relationship building. When evaluating a new grantee prospect, Adam remarked he looks carefully at the board makeup – are local business leaders on the board; how much do board members give and participate in fundraising-as an indicator of board investment, dedication and organizational credibility.

Focus senior-staff on developing close relationships with foundation personnel who are not trustees. According to the study by Faruqi, 44% of well-connected senior staff obtained 1 to 3 grants due to their connections. While board members may be in a better position to cultivate connections with the “powers that be,” senior staff is capable of cultivating foundation program personnel who are not trustees. Although relationship building can be challenging when program officers don’t call back or rely heavily on on-line grant applications, you can still send grantors updates on program successes and highlight your mission’s fit with their giving priorities through newsletters, videos, social media, etc., just prior to the foundation’s board meeting. If foundation personnel respond to your phone calls or emails, begin to utilize the grantor as a sounding board and information resource before submitting a grant application. You may obtain crucial information that guides the focus of your proposal and can make the difference between approval and rejection.

Submit grant proposals containing specific and relevant goals and objectives achievable within a realistic time frame. Use language for lay people; no jargon. Be factual and specific. Don’t talk in generalities or using emotional terms. Does your program have a well thought out plan for implementation? Is your organization or program self-supporting – sustainable if the funder reduces or eliminates funding after year one? As foundations are under increasing pressure from their own funders for accountability, it is critical nonprofits provide measurable program results and quality data through a well-designed evaluation process. What’s more, all nonprofit senior staff and board members should be well versed in these measured results.

Be responsive. Don’t wait to answer phone calls or requests for information from grantors. Provide required information upfront-before they ask- through clear, concise grant proposal submissions and progress and final reports that answer all questions completely. Consistent contact with foundations builds trust and program officers may be more accepting of temporary challenges or grant changes if there is already a trusted relationship.

NO does not mean NEVER – just not now. Re-strategize and keep your organization in the minds of funders. Invite the grantor to see a project. Continue to send newsworthy articles about your organization successes and challenges and educational materials on your service sector (e.g. homelessness) to establish your expertise on the issues. And when you secure that grant, always provide timely acknowledgment through personal phone calls, letters, newsletters, donor walls, etc.

Our next article will provide insights on how foundations can support nonprofits in addition to financial giving and forge stronger relationships with their grantees.