Cynthia Foo, Grants Manager, Environmental Defence
As a contract and full-time fundraiser who has specialized in both giving and soliciting grants, I’ve come across a few misconceptions on what encourages foundations to give. Here are some common mistakes and what you can do to correct them:
1. I shouldn’t contact the foundation to pitch our work because it says “no unsolicited proposals” on their website.
Most foundations make this advisory as they lack the staff to handle application questions from the larger public. However, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to find a point of contact where possible—especially if your work is a close fit with the foundation’s interests and granting history.
Be prepared to dig deeper within your organization: find out the Board connections between your organization and theirs; work out relationships which may get an in-person meeting with the foundation’s steering committee; or if all else fails, send a polite, short (1-2 paragraph) e-mail to the contact on your proposed targeted approach, and ask whether the foundation would be interested in finding out more.
2. I shouldn’t contact a foundation in advance of my grant application because it will just annoy them.
As someone who has worked for both a corporation disbursing grants and for a charity soliciting foundations grants, my first-hand experience is that no foundation actively soliciting grants has ever expressed annoyance at an initial call or e-mail, especially if it’s an opportunity to offer insights on what can be improved.
When I worked for a disbursing organization, I spent an inordinate amount of time reviewing applications that were just not a good fit, or were truly puzzling in their approach. Some of the applications that came across my desk demonstrated no overlap with the mission of the funding organization, no explanation of how the work would enhance the funder’s mandate, and had no indication of how the grant would help the charity succeed if they received funding. In most cases, these were grant proposals from organizations which I knew and respected.
I would have been glad to have saved their grants officer and their staff the time and hassle of submitting a flawed application if they had just called or e-mailed me at the outset. And I would have been more than happy to try to strengthen the application before it went up the ladder for review. If an organization is in the business to give out grants, they are motivated to see applications succeed.
3. When creating interim or final reports, I should write to the foundation with the same friendly tone that I use in my newsletters and general communications with individual donors.
Most foundations are interested in metrics, not only in heartwarming stories. While funders are keen to find out the effects of their granting in compelling narratives, foundations’ structures require greater demonstrations of returns-on-donation than individual donors may demand. What did the grant help advance? How many did it help your organization serve? How did it help change people’s lives? The foundation’s board will ask for these facts as it will help them determine their own measures of success in the community, and will help them set clear strategic directions in the future.
4. I should follow all of my foundation funder’s instructions and only submit applications online and submit reports when they say to do so in the grant agreement. Any other attempts to contact them will be seen as a nuisance.
This is the most common misconception I hear when talking to grant writers or other fundraising staff. Most foundations are sophisticated organizations which appreciate being treated as partners in funding. In this respect, stewardship techniques when dealing with foundations are very much akin to those used when dealing with major donors—share your results early, and often; make sure you trumpet your wins, and most of all, make sure you alert your funder early if a proposed course of work ends up being derailed and you realize you won’t be able to do what you said you’d be able to in your proposal. Most funders understand that the work they are funding is at risk of the inevitable chaos of life—someone leaves for another job, someone gets sick, or someone just plain forgets to do something because they didn’t read the application properly.
Making sure that clear communication is established with the foundation funder all along the way—not just at the time of reporting or proposal—is key in ensuring long-term, rewarding relationships. In fact, this approach generally helps create opportunities to increase giving from these foundations in the long-run as your own organization grows.
5. When a foundation rejects my grant application, I should file it and/or not bother reapplying.
Most foundation funders want to see applications succeed. If they reject your grant application, chances are there are good reasons why. Perhaps your budget needed to be weighted differently. Maybe your approach didn’t fit their priorities this year. Or perhaps it was just bad timing and they’d already allocated funds to another charity. Any of these reasons would allow you to alter your approach and resubmit your application next year.
Best of all, contacting the foundation to ask for feedback on what could be improved helps nurture the budding relationship between the potential funder and the charity, which is always helpful when asking for support. It’s easy to be disheartened, but it’s better to learn and reposition for the next round.
Since 2010, Cynthia Foo has helped charities increase their foundations grants funding. She has worked for Human Rights Watch (NYC) and is currently employed as the Grants Manager by Environmental Defence Canada, a national environmental charity. She also currently provides foundations fundraising assistance to Hincks-Dellcrest Foundation and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. In the summer, she teaches kayakking and stand-up paddleboarding and loves to spend lazy afternoons in the sun with her dog Chauncey. You can follow Cynthia on Twitter at @cynthfoo or connect with her on LinkedIn.