Five Tips for Building Stronger Relationships With Foundations
It’s difficult to make generalizations across the 71,000 grant-making foundations in the United States, but there are enough family resemblances to make it worth hazarding a few words of advice when it comes to nonprofit/foundation relations.
For more than 65 years, the Meyer Foundation has based its work on a deep respect for nonprofit organizations and the extraordinary people who lead and staff them. Many of our colleagues in the foundation world share our desire to work in creative partnership with the nonprofits we serve.
The following are tips to help nonprofits build strong creative partnerships with foundations.
1. Attend to the basics. There’s no substitute in any working relationship for simple human decency. Be honest in your dealings with foundation staffers — they don’t like surprises any more than you do. And be merciful — like you, they’re busy and face their own institutional pressures. If a foundation provides detailed application guidelines, follow them closely. Submit a proposal that shows a regard for the values, priorities and general practices of the foundation. If you’re funded, thank the people involved in making the funding decision. And always keep the communications channels open — even when things go wrong.
2. Get personal. Move from a paper relationship to one of flesh and blood at your first opportunity. Foundations, like many individual donors, fund people — not organizations. The heart of their relationship will not be with an entity, but with individuals they believe are capable of doing good work. Often the most accurate predictor of nonprofit success will be the qualities of your executive director: his or her vision, passion, management skills and ability to marshal resources for the common good. Your executive director should not only inspire, but he or she also should know his or her way around your organization’s financial statements.
3. Focus on the “so what.” If you’re given a site visit, try to schedule it at a time when your program officer will see children being cared for, people being fed, families being housed. When you make your pitch, focus on what’s important about your work beyond what your program officer can see. Are you the first, the largest, the best, the only …?
4. Do your homework. What can peer organizations tell you about their funding relationships with the foundation in question? Try to anticipate a foundation’s questions: You’ve gotten along without our funding so far, so why us and why now? We’re already funding ABC Inc.; why should we fund you?
5. Share what you learn. Relationships go both ways. What does your organization have to offer people in the foundation community? You likely have expert knowledge of a particular field (immigration, say) or of a neighborhood that’s of interest to funders. Perhaps you’ve recently done a study or survey of a key community. Offer to meet with foundation staff to share your knowledge or, better yet, collaborate with other nonprofits to organize a funder briefing on the subject.
Albert Ruesga is vice president for programs and communication for the Meyer Foundation. He can be reached via www.meyerfdn.org