6 Tips for Initiating Relationships with Grant Funders

Woman on the Phone

I had a conversation with someone recently and mentioned that fundraisers should treat grant funders and potential grant funders as they would any other major gift prospect. She seemed surprised to hear this.

But think about it, people give to people and even though foundation representatives may award someone else’s money, they still have to decide the best way to use their limited funds to fulfill their mission.

 When you look at it in the context of the fundraising cycle, grant funders and individual major gift prospects only differ in the identification and solicitation stages. A database does not exist that lists all of the philanthropists in the country with their contact information, preferred areas of interest and what they gave to last year – but wouldn’t that be awesome! And obviously, we write a formal proposal to solicit funds for most grants whereas a verbal ask, sometimes followed by a proposal, usually suffices for an individual major gift prospect.

So, if you want to make an initial contact with a potential grant funder, how can you do so most effectively? I offer the following 6 tips.

  1. Call them on the phone, clearly identifying yourself and your organization. I advocate using the phone which allows you to make a more personal connection that email will allow. But if you can’t call, email. In either event, identify yourself immediately. If your organization’s mission or purpose is not evident from your name, you might add your tagline or mission so that they can understand your purpose very quickly.

  2. Tell them the purpose of your call. Let them know immediately if you would like to schedule a face-to-face meeting or if you prefer to talk through an idea on the phone. For local funders, try to get a face-to-face meeting! It will enhance your relationship in the long-term and, after all, fundraising relies on relationships so start building that now. Once you have that relationship, a quick follow up phone call or email might suffice.

  3. Respect their time. Although their job responsibilities likely include talking to grant funders and potential funders, they have many other tasks on their plate. I usually ask flat out if the have a few minutes to talk about a particular project. Then give them the elevator speech or short description of the project.

  4. Listen. After you give them your elevator speech about your project and ask if it fits their priorities (the better question than “will you fund this?”), give them time to talk about their priorities, projects, and process. I find that I learn as much from listening to the foundation executive talk through how a project might fit than I can get from reading their guidelines. Often, they will give you insights that you can’t get anywhere else. (Another good reason to call rather than email and build that relationship!)

  5. Do your homework! Ask any foundation person and they will tell you they hate it when people call asking for information they can easily find on their website or with minimal research. Know their priorities, deadlines, and other basic information BEFORE you call. You can seek clarification, but make it evident you did not robocall potential funders.

  6. Don’t argue. If they do not feel like your project fits their priorities, never argue with them that it clearly does! Instead, ask clarifying questions. Sometimes I have not done a good job explaining the project to them; once they understand it, it does fit. But if clearly your project does not fit their guidelines, thank them for their time, ask them if they know of any other funders who might have an interest, and move on. While I know you would rather have a check after the phone call, sometimes taking a prospect off your list and not wasting any more time on them helps as well. And I have gotten great leads this way to a funder I would have never found otherwise!

Calling potential funders takes time, but can reap enormous benefits for years to come as you develop a solid relationship with that funder. Alternatively, it prevents you from wasting time on a proposal that has no chance of success.

So, pick up the phone … and make a new connection.

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