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!

Prospecting: Step One to Stronger Grant Submissions

The lure of grantsmanship is the intoxicating concept that your nonprofit can secure outsized investment by simply applying for it. Too many think of it like submitting a credit card application; based solely on the merits of your organization’s mission and impact, the grantmaking source will prioritize your project and reward it with a big check with many zeroes.

The fact is, this isn’t how it works. Grantmaking sources receive hundreds, if not thousands of submissions every year. The movement toward online submission processes has made it relatively easy for 501c3 organizations to submit applications and grantmakers are deluged with requests, many of which do not match giving guidelines. The likelihood that your proposal is carefully reviewed is relatively low given the number of applications that must be processed.

So what does this mean? Should you give up on the hope for grant funding? Of course not. But it does mean that you should do your homework and focus your energy on sources that are more likely to fund you. In Next Stage Consulting’s first installment in its five-part series, I’ll talk about prospecting for grantmaking sources.

Identifying Sources
It is an oft-asked question – “isn’t there a website where one can seek grant opportunities?”

The answer is “yes and no.” There are certainly websites, but they are rarely free. Some of the best sources are The Foundation Center and FoundationSearch, both of which offer access to searchable foundation profiles for a fee. My personal favorite is FoundationSearch, which is run by Metasoft, a Canadian company that operates as a for-profit business. The Foundation Center has a very good product as well, Foundation Directory Online, but I’ve found Metasoft does a good job of staying one step ahead of the competition.

In some communities, you may find that your local library provides access to foundation software. For example, the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library provides access to The Foundation Center at its Main Library branch and six satellite branches.

These are fairly comprehensive resources, but you might find that not all corporate sources of support are profiled. Some companies may have a community relations team that provides gifts and sponsorships, but do not operate under a 501c3. Still other foundations operate under the umbrella of your local community foundation, and do not report directly to the IRS.

To identify these and other sources, search engines like Google can be the best bet. Search for queries using your mission focus, geographic region and words like “gift,” “grant,” “allocation” and “award.” You may also want to look at the websites of organization similar to yours and seek out online annual reports that might give you an idea of sources you have not yet uncovered. If you are familiar with the IRS form 990, set up a free login with Guidestar.

Types of Sources
Grantmakers are likely to fall into one of three categories:

  • Corporate Foundations/Corporate Outreach – Some companies develop a separate 501c3 foundation to operate as a channel for grant making. These are typically large companies that want to separate gift making from sponsorships, where they are likely to receive sponsor recognition in return. Most companies do not have a foundation, though they may also allocate gifts to support causes. Corporate foundations will often have a designated contact along with a board of directors. Companies without a foundation will designate a Director of Corporate Communications, External Relations, or Corporate Outreach to be the initial contact. In both cases, internal contacts at high levels of the company have the ability to introduce projects for support, and overlap with sponsorship efforts are common.
  • Process Foundations – Foundations where the founder is no longer the sole decision maker are more likely to operate with a very defined process. A gatekeeper is apt to be defined (either an Executive Director or Foundation Director), and the foundation’s board of directors are each involved in determining which organizations receive support. These foundations are attractive because they seem to be cut-and-dry regarding the application process. However, many factors contribute to whether your organization will receive support, and relationships are key to success.
  • Family Foundations – Though they are formed as 501c3 entities, soliciting family foundations is often akin to soliciting an individual – there is typically no defined process for applying for support, and the decision is made by a single or handful of individuals who are related. Relationships are the single most important factor to receiving support, either through direct interaction with foundation directors or gatekeepers connected to decision makers.

Determining Likelihood of Support
Like most forms of fundraising, successful grant seeking typically boils down to three motivations:

  • Mission-Suitability – This seems obvious, but grant makers usually tell you what they want to support. This information can be found online, but you might have to look of the foundation’s Form 990 to figure out where they tend to allocate funding. However, not all missions are created equal. Knowing that a foundation supports education programming is useful, but it is also important to figure out whether there is a preference for direct service or systemic change, or if there is a geographic focus to grantmaking. Even when an organization’s mission is very appropriate, the foundation may already be supporting an organization with a similar profile, and may choose not to duplicate support.
  • New/Latent Relationships – As indicated throughout this post, relationships are singularly important – an organization must understand the importance outreach plays in securing grant support. These may be relationship that already exist, as in a board member who is friendly with a member of the foundation’s staff or board. Or is may be a relationship that does not yet exist, and requires intentional outreach by your organization’s leadership to establish connection. The first stop is typically a program officer or lead contact – it is perfectly acceptable to seek a meeting to discuss programming. Board members may also be successful at connecting with other decision-makers, particularly important in influencing corporate giving.
  • Self Interest – It may be not be obvious, but self interest is a very important factor. For family foundations, recognition opportunities play prominently, particularly in capital asks. In corporate giving, while it may not be considered pure sponsorship, the recognition plan for a charitable gift should be described in detail.

What Next?
In the next installment, Josh will review the process of cultivating gatekeepers and decision makers. To make sure you don’t miss it, subscribe to the blog!

Five Steps to Stronger Grant Submissions

Nothing seems to make development professionals groan more with frustration than staring down the barrel of a massive grant submission. Fundraisers in small development shops must find ways to balance relationship-building with “computer work” that may include multiple grant proposal submissions. In larger shops, one staff member may be in charge of managing the grant calendar, but is often working in a vacuum of well-worn narratives.

In early 2014, the Next Stage Consulting Blog will feature a grant writing series – “Five Steps to Stronger Grant Submissions” – focused on improving your chances of grant-seeking success. Over the next few months, Josh will share tips on the following topics:

To make sure you don’t miss any of the series, please consider signing up for the Next Stage Consulting blog. Enter your e-mail address in subscription box to the right – we promise not to bombard your inbox!