Writing grants is a lot like dating. Just because something worked in one relationship doesn't mean it's going to work in the next. Each relationship is unique, unpredictable, exciting, and...sometimes heartbreaking. And when we write a grant proposal, we have to be vulnerable but still present our best qualities. Ready for some foundation dating advice?
Because every foundation is unique, there are two critical components of success to grantwriting that have nothing to do with how well you craft your proposal — research and cultivation. Or in dating terms, getting to know you and courting.
First, you have to research the foundation. If you were dating, this would be like checking out someone's online profile. A grantwriter, instead, checks out the foundation's profile in Foundation Directory Online and spends some time with its 990-PFs. If the foundation issues publications, you'll want to flip through them and take note of the terminology the foundation uses and its stance with respect to your issue. If the foundation has a website, read through the program guidelines, application information, and any FAQs on the site.
As you do, keep an eye out for the foundation's preferences and restrictions. What has it funded in the past and at what level? A quick review of its tax returns (those 990-PFs) should give you a good sense of its giving patterns. One of my favorite things about Foundation Directory Online is its mapping feature, which allows you to suss out whether a foundation has ever made a grant to a nonprofit in your city, county, or district, as well who the grant went to and the grant amount. Powerful information. It's like peeking into someone's dating history and learning how long the relationship lasted and how serious it was!
Second, make a plan for cultivating the foundation. Put on your best courting hat and give the foundation a call, write an email, or send them a letter of inquiry. Share your idea or describe your project. Be sure to put your best foot forward but remember that it's okay to show your vulnerable side. Describe your organization's strengths and the areas where it could use some help, and be sure to give the foundation a clear picture of what a relationship between the two of you would look like. Understand, too, that the foundation is likely to have its own ideas about such a relationship, and be ready to compromise.
Someone once told me that love is a competition in generosity. How can we as nonprofits reciprocate foundation generosity? Be a good communicator. Remember the little things. Anticipate the foundation's needs. Nurture the relationship. In grantmaking terms, follow through and follow up. Send progress reports. Share stories with the foundation that illustrate the impact you're having and provide it with media it can use for its own communications purposes. Do whatever you need to do to help the foundation feel good about its grant all year long.
Remember, if you've met one foundation, you've met one foundation. Each foundation is different, and they all have their own ambitions and boundaries. Building a strong relationship with a funder takes time and persistence. But when the relationship is strong, it can be one of the best things that ever happened to your nonprofit and will repay the energy you put into it many times over.
What have you found to be effective in building relationships with foundations? Have any tips to share? We'd love to hear them!
Allison Shirk is executive director of on Vashon Island, Washington. To read more of her articles, click here.