Here at Train Your Board, we tend to focus on donor fundraising because:
- Most philanthropic dollars are given by individual donors, not foundations
- There are fewer opportunities for your board members to help with grants
However, grants are part of a diversified fundraising strategy, and the skills you learn – research, asking good questions, trying to match your programs with the funder’s interests – can improve your outreach to individual donors.
Today we’re featuring an exercise to help you build relationships with potential grantmakers and increase your odds of success. It’s adapted with permission from Andy’s book, Grassroots Grants.
Before you pick up the phone, do your homework
A quick review of grant research strategy:
- Collect funding leads from other nonprofits – study their websites and annual reports – and ask for suggestions from your closest contacts in the funding world.
- Research potential funders online. Use the free research materials at a Funding Information Network library (find your closest location here).
- Gather and study materials: foundation guidelines, annual report, and lists of grantees.
- Sort the list based on how well your programs match their interests and priorities.
Why you need to call funders
If you identify a viable match, or have questions about the guidelines, start the conversation by phone.
David Karoff, formerly of Rhode Island Foundation speaks for dozens of grants officers when he says, “Talk to us before you start writing. It’s in everyone’s best interest to build the relationship first.”
“I wouldn’t be so nervous about picking up the phone,” says Denise Joines of the Wilburforce Foundation. “I can’t do my job without talking to you, so it’s always helpful to have a phone call first. Do research before calling. It’s very impressive when someone has obviously done their homework.”
If you don’t see the words, “No phone calls, please,” absolutely make the call.
Phoning funders – an exercise
This exercise includes two roles:
- The grantseeker.
- The foundation officer, a staff member who reads and screens proposals, meets with grantseekers as time allows, does “background checks” on applicant groups, and makes recommendations to the final decision-makers (typically the foundation board).
Find a partner to work with in person or by phone. If you’re doing this exercise in person, turn your chairs back to back so you can’t see each other; this simulates a phone call.
For the purpose of the exercise, assume that you’ve completed your initial research and identified this foundation as a good match.
When you’re ready to start, make the phone ring (yes, you can say “ring, ring”) and your partner will respond by answering.
How to structure the phone call
Over the next three minutes, if you’re the grantseeker, your job is to:
- Introduce yourself.
- Make sure you’re talking to the right person. “I’m working on a community garden project in my urban neighborhood in Cleveland; who would be the best person to speak with?”
- Find out what, if anything, the foundation officer knows about your work or your issue. Ask open ended questions; for example, “What have you heard about my organization?” rather than, “Have you heard about my organization?”
- Describe your organization and your project briefly!
- Ask a question or two to gauge the funder’s interest.
- Complete the call by negotiating a next step. Options include:
- Summary. Review a summary or introductory letter (letter of inquiry)
- Proposal. Riview a full proposal
- Meeting . Schedule a meeting or a site visit – a tour of your facility
- Leads. Suggest other sources of funding (especially if the grantmaker declines the other options)
Debriefing this exercise
The grantseeker goes first, naming two things about the phone call that went well and one thing that could have worked better, with a suggestion for how to improve it.
The foundation officer then provides two compliments and one suggestion to the grantseeker.
After debriefing, switch roles and repeat the exercise. Once you’ve completed both rounds, discuss how you might use what you’ve learned to improve your success with grants.
Conquer your phone phobia
If you’re like me, sometimes you’re afflicted with phone phobia.
“I don’t want to pester them,” I’ll say to myself, feeling timid. “I’ll just ask a lot of stupid questions. Besides, my project is really marginal.”
To be honest, I sometimes gave in to this urge. Perhaps one-quarter of the successful proposals I’ve written were submitted without any prior phone calls or personal contact. But I can also testify that the personal touch makes a big difference.
To conquer your phobia, practice first – this exercise will help – then pick up the phone. You’ll be glad you did.