Communicating With Grantmakers: Targeted Questions to Increase Your Nonprofit’s Chance for Funding
In a normal year, many nonprofit organizations find the task of searching for potential donors and funders to be daunting and arduous. Given this year is anything but normal, even nonprofits with extensive fundraising experience are finding it increasingly difficult to find funding for their programs and services.
As previous sources become unavailable, the search for new funding will become more critical than ever. As a result, it is important to know how to find grants by reviewing best practices for finding potential funders. Put your organization on a funder’s radar and increase your chances of getting funding by forging personal connections with grantmakers and asking well-crafted questions.
Who Is in Charge of Delivering Grant Funding?
Funding comes from a variety of sources, including private foundations and the government (in the form of federal/state/county grants). Both task program officers or employees with the job of allocating funds that serve their mission and accomplish their goals or objectives. Depending on the size of the funder, these program officers may be responsible for various grant initiatives and funding objectives. They will likely not have the time nor flexibility to communicate personally with every prospective grantee.
However, it is important to remember that these individuals are simply that: people. Applying for grants, at its most basic level, means connecting with humans. Considering this, there are simple, but pointed strategies you can implement to help increase your chances of ultimately receiving a grant: Introduce yourself prior to any grant submission, and create a memorable connection with the potential funder.
(A note on federal funding: These grants are highly competitive and often require a lot of pre-existing infrastructure. If your organization is small or cannot demonstrate a history of managing large-scale funding, applying for such grants is not likely to be the best use of your time and resources.)
Always Prepare Before Reaching Out to a Funder
Before communicating with potential funders, it is important to collect relevant information about them, as well as your own organization. Doing this research and any corresponding prep work before making contact will position you as a competent grantseeker, thereby increasing your chances of being funded.
Depending on the funder, spend some time gathering pertinent details from grants.gov, online foundation directories or the funder’s own website. Make sure all information pertaining to your own nonprofit is up to date and, if necessary, enlist the help of other employees who can assist in collecting relevant data. This information should include, but is not limited to the items listed below.
From the funding organization:
- Contact person, title, email, phone number.
- Average grant award, maximum grant award.
- Mission and areas of interest.
- Eligibility requirements.
- Specific grant initiatives and deadlines.
- Past grantees and amounts awarded.
From your organization:
- Recent history.
- Project details (existing and/or future).
- Target audience served.
- Past grants/awards.
Some organizations may only have a contact email, while others may only include a phone number. Each has its pros and cons. On the one hand, using email allows you to include all relevant items, however, it can be challenging to ensure it will be read completely, if at all. When sending an email, remember to be compelling, but concise. A detailed and long-winded email may be overlooked, so get to the point. Phone calls, on the other hand, ensure a connection, but you may not be able to cover as much ground or supply as much information. If an organization provides both contact options, I would encourage you to do both.
Start with the phone call, but send a brief email beforehand, requesting to schedule the call, rather than simply making a cold call. This introductory email should include a short sentence or two about your organization, as well as the grant initiative you are interested in discussing. If after a week you receive no response, send a follow-up email asking to schedule the call. If there is no response to the second message, reach out to the funder by phone and indicate you are following up to email messages that may not have been received. Remember program officers are busy people, so the lack of a response does not necessarily mean the grantmaker is not interested in hearing from you.
Communication Strategy: Questions to Create a Connection
Because you do not want to waste their time nor ruin your introduction, keep your initial phone call short. This is your first opportunity to present your organization as a hopeful recipient of their funding, and you want to do that in the most effective way possible. With that in mind, start by briefly familiarizing the program officer with your organization, but quickly move on to questions you have prepared. It is crucial you accomplish the following during your conversation:
- Compliment the funder on their work.
- Introduce your organization and your accomplishments.
- Demonstrate the mission alignment between you two.
- Articulate the future positive impacts on your community.
Achieving this in a phone call will require nuance and skill (and practice!), but it is entirely possible. Each question should be structured as follows: “brief details” followed by a ”direct inquiry.” These “brief details” can provide relevant context for the question and should also demonstrate your organization’s competence and worthiness as a funding candidate. The “direct inquiry” should be specific and useful, but not something that is found on their website. Here are several good examples of how this can be accomplished:
Question 1: “Congratulations on all your recent work doing [XXX]. I noticed that last year, [THEIR ORGANIZATION NAME] funded [XXX] nonprofit to help them do [XXX]. This year, are there any emerging interests within the program, other considerations or shifting priorities that would be important for us to know about?
Goal: (COMPLIMENT) Compliment the funder by referring to successful grant initiatives they have carried out. This shows your interest in their organization and demonstrates you have done the appropriate research, including researching their past award recipients (especially if your organization seems to align with those).
Question 2: “As I mentioned at the beginning, [YOUR ORGANIZATION NAME] has successfully been doing [XXX] over the past [XXX] years. We are excited to continue that work [or ‘expand that work,’ whichever is applicable] and look forward to hopefully working together to continue to achieve these goals. Aside from the obvious of not following directions or not qualifying, what would you say are the most common reasons for rejection? And what can be done to improve the chances of a favorable review?”
Goal: (INTRODUCE) By highlighting your own strengths, you are continuing to introduce your organization to the funder and showing you are capable of successfully implementing programs. This is also a chance to educate the funder about your activities and the audience you serve. At the same time, you are seeking the program officer’s expertise as the gatekeeper.
Question 3: “Your website indicates that grant funds are aimed toward [XXX]. Given that our proposed project will accomplish [XXX], in your opinion, would it seem this is a good match with your organization’s current priorities?”
Goal: (ALIGN) This is your chance to assure the funder that your organizations align well and your missions match or are parallel. Their goals and your goals do not have to be exactly alike, but should both aim to create similar positive change within your communities. This can be done by highlighting common missions, geography, projects, etc.
Question 4: “Recently, we successfully served the [XXX] community by doing [XXX]. In our future plans, with additional funding, we plan to also reach [XXX] population with our [XXX] program. Is the award amount expected to change from the previous year? And how much would you say your award amounts vary in a given year?
Goal: (SERVE) This is your chance to continue sharing the positive work your organization accomplishes by highlighting your community and target audience served. You can also continue to show alignment by demonstrating even more continued overlap.
By this point, the strategy should be clear: asking targeted questions (some technical and others informative) preceded by relevant specifics that demonstrate your experience and worthiness to the funder. Make sure to listen, allowing time for the program officer to answer the question and display his/her expertise. You are not the first organization to reach out to the funder, so being dynamic while concise can help you stand out and be remembered. Again, avoid asking about anything that is readily available on their website — this is absolutely crucial!
At the end, thank the program officer for his/her time and ask the best way to follow up. Do not worry if the phone call only lasted long enough for just the first couple of questions. After the call, follow up with an email thanking the program officer once more and summarizing key points discussed. You can include another question in this email, if you were unable to cover them all during the phone call. This will provide an opportunity for continued dialogue.
(Note: If email is the only form of contact available, the same information, tactics and questions covered above should be included.)
Takeaway: Fundraising Always Begins With an Introduction
Fundraising, like any relationship, starts with an initial meeting. First impressions matter, and making a positive one on behalf of your organization will help pave the path to grant success. The overall goal of a successful first interaction with a potential funder can be summarized as follows: COMPLIMENT the funder on the work they have done, INTRODUCE your organization and activities accomplished, show that your interests and missions ALIGN, and explain how you SERVE your community and who the target audience is. Rest assured that while not every connection will lead to winning a grant award, the practice will hone your skills and grow your network. Solid relationships sometimes only reap rewards years down the road. Put in the proper work now to invest in a successful funding future.
For more strategies and advice pertaining to the grant search process, I have created a powerful free resource called “The Grant Hunt Simplified.” This free course will teach you the most efficient way to search for grants that will help you create a list of potential funders for you to employ the tactics we have covered today. There you will also find a useful Funder Profile form to use for your phone calls that will easily track your communication with funders. Happy grant hunting!
Maddie Zeigler, M.Ed., has been in the nonprofit world for nearly 30 years first as a program developer and now as a professional grant writer, to date securing well over $80 million dollars in grants on behalf of her clients. Her career began at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science. While there, she learned the foundation of grant development through the Grantsmanship Center and served as the museum’s in-house grant writer for over a decade. She went on to start her own grant writing consulting business.
A veteran writer of local, state, federal and foundation grant proposals, Maddie has developed a unique approach for designing viable programs and for writing compelling narratives. She recently founded Grantli, an free online educational platform for the grant development process.
She is also a charter member of the Grant Professionals Association. A Puerto Rico native, she currently resides in Albuquerque, New Mexico.