Success With Grants: Relationships, Research and Communication Are Key
Foundation giving continues to set new records. It accounted for 18% ($75.86 billion) of all charitable gifts in 2018, according to Giving USA. Whether approaching foundations, corporations or government entities, any grant program should be part of a development plan that clearly states the goals, focus and responsibilities.
Frequently, nonprofits pursue grants (as well as other donors) without strategy, often merely chasing dollars. Using the same approach for every grant and neglecting relationships with grantors can be dangerous.
“Every donor is as individual as a fingerprint. Every human has his or her own money story… where they learned about money, or who they think deserves money,” said Ruth Ann Harnisch, president of the New York City-based The Harnisch Foundation. “The story that works with one donor falls on deaf ears with another donor, because their stories are different, and they are hearing with different ears.”
“Some charities can get more from a small family foundation than the large institutional givers. Stop looking for the magic list of donors or the huge pile of money you suspect is being hidden from you,” Harnisch continued.
She also stressed the folly in thinking that a development director or consultant with “connections” will bring “their magical pile of money.”
“They [don’t] have a contact list that is coated in diamonds,” she said. “No one who is successful in raising money for an art institution can magically take that list of donors to the hospital foundation,” she said. “Sometimes relationships don’t matter, because the ask is perfect and appropriate for the source of the money. But most times, money changes hands, because relationships are built, and there is trust.”
Foundations and other grant opportunities vary in size, complexity and the appropriate approach. While some stay focused on priority funding areas, research frequently reveals anomalies—grants falling outside of the reported focus area, and variations in program, location or type of support (annual, capital, etc.). The grantor can most often change funding priorities or award grants as it sees fit.
Do your research, and make a personal connection wherever possible. Whether your organization has a grant writer, retains one as a consultant or has a team for foundation and corporate giving, always seek to build relationships with each granting organization. Leveraging board members, volunteers, staff and others can be quite helpful. A talented grant professional may prepare the proposal and reports; however, it is often more effective for the chief development officer or CEO to sign letters of thanks and share updates.
Aim to match any inquiry, especially any proposal, with common goals and interests.
“Ninety-five percent of the correspondence we receive in which people hope to receive money in exchange have not familiarized themselves with our work or our guidelines,” Harnisch highlights.
“It is the grant seeker’s job to learn how to approach each individual source of financing,” Harnisch noted. Some approaches are more formal, while others more informal. Some funders are open to conversations; others have established procedures to avoid personal contact.
Pete Bird, president of Nashville’s The Frist Foundation, has a different approach.
“My inclination is generally to tell development people not to bother writing grants,” Bird said. “Instead, I usually give them a set of questions that need to be addressed. Then we ask for backup documents. I end up writing the proposal summary for our board.
“Grant proposals generally get in the way of communication, rather than promote it,” he added. “We always like to start the grant process with conversation. It helps us, as grant makers, to learn a much broader picture of the agency and the people they serve.”
According to Rhonda Poppen, president of SanFrancisco-based grantwriting consultancy GRANTdog, any grant proposal is only as solid as the work that precedes it.
“Before considering a program a strong candidate for funding, a funder must be convinced that there is sustainability beyond their funding cycle,” Poppen explained. “We can write a strong proposal, but more important is the structure that holds the program up prior to our putting pen to paper.”
“It is vital that our ask matches the funder’s philanthropic passion,” she stressed. “The most competitive grant proposal will speak to the success of a current program or one that is new and being modeled after a successful program elsewhere.”
Funding cycles for grants take patience. Review cycles can be lengthy and multiple submissions may be needed to even land a conversation with a foundation program officer.
“Grantwriting takes the greatest patience for the longest haul,” Poppen said. Feedback from a foundation can lead to a better program articulation and, ultimately, a grant award.
The two most common yet critical mistakes Jake Seliger, principal of New York-based grant-writing firm Seliger + Associates, sees in reviewing client-written proposals include disregarding RFP instructions and poor writing skills.
The granting processes can seem daunting. It can be a wasted effort or a program that yields great results. Like with other fundraising, be sure to do your research, have the right approach, establish relationships, follow guidelines, communicate clearly and follow up as appropriate.
Looking for Jeff? You'll find him either on the lake, laughing with good friends, or helping nonprofits develop to their full potential.
Jeff believes that successful fundraising is built on a bedrock of relevant, consistent messaging; sound practices; the nurturing of relationships; and impeccable stewardship. And that organizations that adhere to those standards serve as beacons to others that aspire to them. The Bedrocks & Beacons blog will provide strategic information to help nonprofits be both.
Jeff has more than 25 years of nonprofit leadership experience and is a member of the NonProfit PRO Editorial Advisory Board.