Cultivation: Step Two to Stronger Grant Submissions

In the second entry in the firm’s five part series on creating stronger grant submissions, Next Stage Consulting explores the do’s and don’ts of grantmaker cultivation, investigating what works and what doesn’t, and how to walk the fine line between forthright and pushy.

No Matter What, Don’t Break Her Heart

“Am I on a blind date?”

The thought occurred to me as I was handed a glass of wine by the daughter of a trustee of my organization’s largest foundation donor. Perhaps it was in the way she handed it to me, or the way her family was watching us out of the corner of their eyes, but it suddenly occurred to me that I was sweating profusely.

I had accepted the invitation to the private party with excitement – a chance to spend time at an intimate party seemed like a great opportunity for donor cultivation.  I had come to know the family fairly well and I truly enjoyed their company. This was also a chance to meet other members of the extended family, who I learned had their own donor advised funds as well. I’d arrived fashionably late only to find myself the lone non-family member . It wasn’t long until my Spidey sense began to tingle.

On the surface, it made good sense. I was single at the time, and the young lady was perfectly lovely. But rather than “just go with it,” the advice I received from my colleagues later on, I felt the weight of an ethical quandary – what if this turns into something romantic only to end sourly? Am I risking my organization’s relationship with this very important donor? Further, what if I am completely reading this the wrong way and I end up offending her?

The stress was too much to bear – I politely thanked my hosts and exited stage right at the first available moment, very likely offending everyone in the process anyway.

“I Just Sent Grant Requests to 27 Foundations”

One of the biggest misconceptions about grant development is that it is all about writing grant proposals, developing tomes of wordy material and sending it off to people you’ve never met who will pass judgment on the merits of your mission. The fact is, sending in the grant proposal or application is typically the last step in a much longer process that begins with identification and leads to cultivation. If you fill out grant applications and send them in unannounced to a laundry list of potential donors, success is very unlikely.

Unlike communication, which is typically one-way directional, cultivation is two-way directional. Sending newsletters and other material to a prospective donor is not cultivation – it’s communication. For real cultivation to take place, two or more people need to be speaking to each other either by phone, written communication via mail or e-mail, or face-to-face.

The tricky part of grantmaker cultivation is that each funder has different rules of engagement. Some do not want you to contact them at all, while others require a letter of inquiry be submitted before first voice contact.  Some will follow you on your social media and save every newsletter you send, while others throw away any correspondence that appears to be marketing in nature. Some want to be very hands on, while others prefer to be slightly aloof.

In this way, it is hard to create hard and fast rules. Still, after years of doing this work, it is clear there are some unwritten rules of the road that are universal in nature.

The Do’s and Don’ts of Grantmaker Cultivation

  • DO follow the rules on the grantmaker’s website regarding the process for communication and requests. If it states that you shouldn’t call or contact staff, be sure to follow that advice!
  • DON’T miss an opportunity to leverage a personal relationship with a stakeholder or gatekeeper, even if the public communication discourages direct contact. But before you do anything, do some digging to make sure that it won’t damage your relationship with the staff of the funder.
  • DO invite the staff and trustees of prospective grant sources to tour your facility, meet your staff and volunteers, and learn more about the impact of your organization’s mission.
  • DON’T put a grantmaker who doesn’t know you on a mailing list to receive every invitation and piece of marketing material you will produce in the next year – it is more likely to injure than help your potential relationship.
  • DO attend public seminars hosted by grantmakers to provide insight into the application process, but be sure to sit near the front of the room so when it is over you are close enough to be first in line to ask follow-up questions.
  • DON’T raise your hand and ask very technical questions that apply only to your organization in a room full of your peers – it wastes everyone’s time, and makes a poor impression on the staff of the grantmaker.
  • DO remain vigilant in your pursuit of a meeting or phone discussion, particularly with the staff of a grantmaking institution. These are often extremely busy people who need to be reminded several times, and may even acknowledge your persistence positively.
  • DON’T make a nuisance of yourself, hectoring the staff of a grantmaker where the mission isn’t a very good fit anyways. It is a fine line, and while it is important to push, tact is incredibly important.
  • DO engage gatekeepers and decision makers should you see them informally out in the world. They are people, just like you, and a friendly hello with a brief conversation to follow is acceptable.
  • DON’T stalk someone, follow them to the parking garage, or otherwise create an awkward scenario where you ask repeatedly for a determination on your recent grant submission. This may seem obvious, but I’ve heard some real horror stories.
  • DO accept invitations to meet informally with the staff and trustees of grantmakers, have a glass of wine (one glass only!) and engage in conversation about topics that have nothing to do with your organization. Relationships with grantmakers are not much different than other types of donors – they are people and they have lives. Be more than a walking grant proposal.
  • DON’T break anyone’s heart, or otherwise compromise your organization’s current or prospective relationship with a grantmaker. Your organization is likely to exist for a long time after you are no longer around, and job one is to leave it stronger than it was when you started.

At some point, I’ll share my tips for sitting shiva with the trustees of your other most important foundation grantmaker. But for now, please check out #GrantChat on Twitter at Noon EST on Tuesday April 29, when I will serve as guest for a lively discussion of this very topic of grantmaker cultivation!

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