Developing the Relationship


Tori O’Neal-McElrath. 2019. Winning Grants Step by Step: The Complete Workbook for Planning, Developing, and Writing Successful Proposals.

Step 2 Developing Relationships with Funders

WE HAVE ALL HEARD THE ADAGES: “fundraising is about relationships” or “people give to people who work at organizations.” The hard truth for grant writers is that we can write a compelling, well-conceived, and beautifully written proposal and submit it on time with all the required attachments, only to receive a message of rejection weeks or months later. Often that message will include little more than a “thank you for applying,” and no insight into why our project failed to receive funding. It can be a frustrating process. In this chapter, we look at ways to identify, research, and develop relationships with funders to increase the likelihood that our proposals result in positive funding decisions.

Prospect Research

There are multiple ways to identify and research prospective funders. Appendix B in the Resource section and on the Winning Grants Step by Step, Fifth Edition website provides detailed information and tips on how to conduct prospect research to identify possible funders. A short summary of some of the methods available to grant seekers includes: • Free online resources such a grant alerts from a city or state office that compiles open grant opportunities. • Paid online subscription services such as the Foundation Directory Online. • Researching the funders of peer organizations, which may be available in their annual reports, 990’s, or GuideStar profiles. • Professional prospect researchers who can provided tailed profiles of potential funders

Developing the Relationship

After establishing that there is a good fit between your organization and the funder, relationship building becomes a continuous process that begins before a single word of a proposal is written. Strategic communication with funders should continue before, during, and even after the funding relationship has ended. Here are a few concrete ways to approach a funder to open the door to relationship building. These are discussed more fully in the following subsections. • Send the funder a brief email inquiry, unless the foundation’s website discourages or prohibits email outreach. • Call the foundation and request to speak with someone regarding your proposal idea unless the foundation’s website discourages or prohibits phone calls. • Send a brief (no longer than two pages unless the funder expresses the need for more detail) letter of inquiry (LOI) to the funder. Be sure to follow the funder’s guidelines for LOIs. • Invite the funder to your organization for an event that demonstrates your organization’s programs and effectiveness. • Although grant guidelines may determine an organization’s initial approach, grant seekers may have a connection to the funder, such as a board member who can potentially open a door on behalf of the organization for an initial meeting or phone conversation.

Sending Email Inquiries to Funders

Many funders offer grant seekers the option of contacting them via email with questions and funding inquiries. Some grant makers even provide direct email access to their program officers from their websites; others may have an “info@” email that is routed to the appropriate staff person after review. In either case, email is a valuable tool for stimulating further, more meaningful, contact because it provides an opportunity for a brief introduction of a staff person, the organization represented, and the program needing funding. At the same time, it gives program officers the time they need to review the information and potentially respond. The key is to keep it brief ! Resist the urge to write a mini-proposal in the email. In the email, grant seekers can also request an in-person meeting or time for a phone conversation, which then provides the funder with options for responding to the communication.

Contacting a Funder by Telephone

Before calling a funder to pitch an idea, be prepared. The person you speak with may have only a short time for a conversation, so preparation is essential. Be ready to provide the highlights of your organization’s program within a 10- to 15-minute conversation. This time frame includes the time it may take for the person to ask for clarification of any points. Grant seekers should remember that they are not selling their organization’s program to a funder; rather, they are attempting to make a connection between the program and the funding institution’s interest areas. To build a long-term relationship with the funder and with this particular representative, careful and engaged listening to the funder’s interests and providing information the funder wants is extremely important. In listening to the funder’s interests, you might discover – sometimes very early in the conversation – that in fact there is not a match between your organization’s program and the funder’s current funding priorities; that is why grant seekers should have one or two other program ideas in mind to present as a backup. Do not waste this opportunity with the funder; be fully prepared with information on identified unmet needs that may fit into the funder’s interest areas. Finally, make sure to reiterate any follow-up steps resulting from the call and to send a quick thank-you email for the program officer’s time.

Funder Meetings

In an ideal world, grant seekers would get the opportunity to meet face-to-face with a funder before they submit a proposal – either at the funder’s office or, even better, at the grant seeker’s organization. Such meetings allow the development of a personal relationship and, in the case of a site visit, for the funder to see an organization or program in action. Unfortunately, pre-proposal funder meetings are often hard to arrange because funders simply cannot accommodate every nonprofit’s request for them. Also, some funders are leery of these meetings because they do not want to raise unrealistic funding expectations. Managing grant seeker expectations is of the utmost importance to the majority of funders: they want to encourage the submission of solid proposals for programs meeting their interest areas, but at the same time, they do not want to raise false hopes. Remember, every foundation and corporate grant maker has a limited amount of funding available for grants every year. That said, if an organization has a contact that already has a strong relationship with a funder, this individual may be able to help broker a meeting; but understand that any early meeting secured with the grant maker will be very preliminary and in no way ensures that the grant seeker will receive funds from this source. If an in-person meeting is scheduled, grant seekers should have materials available that best describe the organization and the proposed program. In the meeting, the grant seeker should attempt to cover the following topics: • Credibility of the organization • Need for the proposed project • Program description • Community interest in the program • Proposed outcomes • Ability to measure success • Costs and projected revenue sources • Why this funder’s interests maybe met by investing in the program Time with a program officer is likely to be short, so organizations should be prepared to hit the highlights. Listen carefully to the funder’s questions and any concerns expressed, and make sure questions are answered fully and truthfully. These questions and concerns should also be addressed again in the proposal that will be submitted following the meeting, provided there is a good fit. Here are some additional steps to take to develop good relationships with funders to whom the grant seeker has spoken: • Add the program officer to the organization’s mailing list or listserv. • Personally forward your organization’s newsletter, and go the extra distance by including a personal note. • Send brief(one-to two-page)progress reports on the successes of the organization’s work – activities that the program officer has not funded but that colleagues at other funding institutions may have funded. • Invite the program officer to organization events with personal notes – even if she cannot come, she will remember the contact. • Contact the program officer occasionally by telephone or email with brief messages and updates. Include quotes or even notes from program constituents.

Writing a Letter of Inquiry

A letter of inquiry (sometimes called letter of intent – the shorthand for both is LOI) can be the first step in a funder’s grantmaking process. You may be asked to submit an LOI after engaging in the relationship building strategies described above. Or you may be submitting an LOI “cold” – with no prior contact – in hopes that it will be well-received by the funder and result in a phone conversation, meeting, or invitation to submit a full proposal. An LOI provides the funder with a “sneak peek” at the organization, target audience, and prospective program, without requiring the grant seeker to develop a full proposal at this early stage. After the funder has reviewed the information presented in the LOI, the organization may or may not be invited to submit a full proposal. Even though an LOI is a preliminary step, it should be treated as a vital part of relationship building. It is an integral early interaction of what grant seekers hope will be many interactions with the funder. The first step is to check to see whether the funder has specific LOI guidelines. If it does not, the following guidelines cover what information to include, as a general rule: • The organization’s mission, history, accomplishments ,related programs • The need the organization or program meets and who it serves • The outcomes expected from the organization’s project • General details of how the organization will conduct the project • How the projector organization aligns with the funder’s priorities • Organizational or project budget and funding need • Basic attachments maybe required during the LOI stage, including organizational budget and IRS determination letter. Be sure to check the requirements.

Public Funders

Building relationships with public funders can be a very different process from the one described for foundations and corporate funders. The nature of the public funding process requires government entities and employees to maintain impartial positions toward grant seekers and ensure that all applicants for public funding have access to the same information. For this reason, information about public funding and opportunities to engage with government officials are generally open to all and may include: • Notice of Funding Availability (NOFA): a notice published describing funding that may become or is available on a competitive basis, how much funding is available, the goals of the funding program, where an application may be found and submitted, due dates, eligible applicants, and other information. NOFAs are often published well in advance of the actual Request for Applications. • Request for Applications (RFA): The RFA is the solicitation notice in which the funding agency announces that grant funding is available, and provides information including purpose and source of funds; expected grant award amount; award period; eligibility; application content and attachments required; budget requirements; deadlines for applications; application submission requirements; process for how applications will be reviewed; dates and requirements for pre bid conferences; and contact persons within the agency. • Prebid Conference or Webinar: Once the RFA has been issued, many public funders will hold pre bid conferences or webinars. These meetings are designed to clarify any questions that applicants may have with the solicitation documents and requirements. Be sure to read the NOFA and RFA carefully to see if attendance at one of these sessions is a requirement for submitting an application or is recommended but not required. Even if it is not required, attendance at the sessions is a great way to connect with the funding agency, get insight into the application process, and check out the competition ! • General Information Sessions: Sometimes, public funding agencies will hold general information sessions not tied to a funding opportunity. These are good opportunities to build relationships and understand the priorities of the funder. Although public funding agencies follow different rules and regulations than foundation and corporations, the most savvy government grant seekers develop the visibility of their organizations with public funders long before a funding application announcement is ever made. They are active members of their communities and have allies for their work across sectors – including other nonprofit organizations, faith-based organizations, schools and institutions of higher education, elected officials, and more. Developing relationships with funders of all kinds is such an important step in the process of winning grants that the value of doing it well cannot be emphasized enough. Now that you have explored strategies for developing funder relationships, it’s time to craft the problem statement for your grant proposal in Step 3.

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