7 Tips To Build A Great Relationship With a Grant Funder

Meeting with donors and funders

You probably know this already: relationships matter.

As non-profiteers, we already know the good work that we do. It would be delightful if we lived in a world where our merits were able to speak for themselves and understanding of our accomplishments and goals were universal. Money would fly in the door and we could spend all our time doing what we do best.

That’s not the world we live in. For example: a business could make the best doughnuts in the world, but if its customers don’t know about them or if their brief encounters with them aren’t memorable or pleasant, there’s a giant hole in their business model (and it’s not just in the middle of their doughnuts).

A compelling grant is like a compelling doughtnut. You'll be more likely to take a bit if you like the person who made it.It’s time we start thinking about grant funders in the same context. A compelling grant is like a compelling doughnut: you’ll be more likely to take a bite if you like the person who made it.

While some grantors may reside behind web-only applications and may never provide a face-to-face or even voice-to-voice meeting, many funders still value a more analog experience with the agencies and programs that they fund. These individuals want to know about your background, your program’s background, why you do what you do and who else in the community you are working with. It’s with these individuals that your agency really has the opportunity to shine.

At dotted i we’ve been on both sides of the funding process: begging for money and handing it out. Here are our top tips for making your relationship with a funder strong and your likelihood of getting funded go up exponentially.


1. Remember the Human

Bankrolling a program or agency to the tune of several thousand dollars is a big deal. Soliciting funds may be a routine part of your job. As a result, it might be easy to mistake the foundations and organizations that provide funds as yet another relay-race with cash prizes at the end. Big mistake.

Money Please!!!

Don’t be this person. Ever.

These organizations are made up of real people who represent very specific interests. They want to see their community improve and grow by investing not only in the programs that further their causes but in the people who make those causes happen. If you convey more concern about cash than the cause, it’s time to re-evaluate why you’re in this business in the first place.

If you or your team members treat your funders or their employees more like a means to an end than like valuable human beings, even a sterling grant could wind up in the reject pile.


2. Be A Dateable Organization

A contact at one of our favorite foundations once told us, “We like to date before we get married.” Sure enough, we had a nice, long courtship before we finally moved forward.

don't be a bad date

Funder dating tip #1: be impressive, not oppressive.

Getting funded can be a nerve-wracking and uncomfortable experience, which is probably why the metaphor of dating is so apt. You just want to be loved. They want to avoid a relationship with a trainwreck.

So if you want to impress on your early ‘dates’ with a funder, all the rules of regular dating apply to make sure you put your best foot forward with each and every interaction:

  • Make sure you listen as much as you talk (if not more).
  • Be present. Stop trying to think about your next answer or speech. Take a deep breath and just engage with the other party.
  • Highlight similarities between your organization and their areas of interest.
  • On the flip-side: there’s no point in discussing topics that extend beyond the areas of interest of your ‘date’ or their involvement with your organization.
  • Be ready to answer difficult questions.
  • Avoid making any statements that could potentially be offensive.
  • Dress like your organization’s future happiness depends on it.
  • Speak in a way that conveys intelligence.
  • Even dating bill-paying etiquette should come into play if meeting over a meal, coffee, or drinks: offer to pay the tab or at least 50%.
  • Don’t expect a financial kiss at the end of the first date.


3. Use Your Leadership To Your Advantage

Make sure early meetings with your funders include the decision makers in your organization: executive directors, heads of programming, or even highly-engaged board members.

Don Draper Looking Dapper

Bring in the big guns.

Donors want to know that their gifts are being taken seriously. Who you bring to your meetings should show how invested your organization is in the partnership with this new funder.

Your ED and Board should have a comprehensive knowledge of your programs and strategic plan. They should be prepped on the background of your funder and prepared to answer any questions they may have.  And we mean any question they may have.

Your management team should be able to quote information about funding sources, program outcomes, organizational scope, board roster, long-term vision, success stories, and more. There are few things that look worse to a funder than an organization’s leader not knowing what’s going on in their own organization.


4. Know Your Philanthropic Neighbors

Your organization might be doing great work but your funder is going to want to know about your impressive outcomes in the context of your mission within the communities that you serve.

Flanders Simpsons - bad neighbor

Your donors want to know that you’re a good neighbor.

It’s up to you to know your local philanthropic landscape. Who else is doing what you do (within a few degrees of separation)? How are your missions aligned? How do your missions differ?

If a few other agencies in town are providing nearly identical services, be prepared to explain how you aren’t replicating services for the same population. Be open to your funder’s expectation that organizations don’t provide the same service twice.

Highlight partnerships and communication channels with these other agencies (if they exist).  If possible, bring these partnerships up before your funder even has to ask.


5. Talk About The Mission When You Talk About Your Finances

There are very few trade secrets in the nonprofit world, especially when it comes to your financial spreadsheets. Your finances are an open book. If you have 501(c)3 status, you are already familiar with your tax returns being open to the public. Your funder can provide an impromptu audit at any time and may have already done it before your first meeting.

Money Counter

Get ready to have your money counted.

Be ready to answer questions quickly. Be familiar with the tax returns for the past few years. Also come prepared to chat about expenses and funding streams in vivid detail.

Chatting about money will probably be the least enjoyable part of your conversation. It’s dry, tedious, and sometimes confusing.

While it is your job to convey the cold, hard facts of your finances, your job will also be to translate how these funds impact your organization. If your program serves kids, how many kids can be served with $500? For how long can $2,000 keep the lights on? Make sure every number is attached to the core mission of your organization.

If you are trying to fund administrative costs like a new staff member, a new website, or fundraising software, take a tip from this amazing TED Talk by Dan Pallotta. Let them know that you want to grow your infrastructure to make sure that they aren’t your last donor. Let them know that you don’t want to put a cap on your capacity to serve. Be passionate. Communicate the merits of return on investment, but also stress the importance of being able to grow the reach of your mission.


6. Be Communicative

There are a lot of distractions in the nonprofit world. Staff are often performing multiple duties. Programming consumes time that might otherwise be spent fundraising.

Holy Phone Support Batman!

Even Batman has the time to answer a phone call.

However, when a funder asks a question or requests a document, the financial health of your organization depends on your ability to be timely, prompt, and engaged.

You’ll have to answer the same series of questions for a number of donors. Some donors will have extra hoops for you to jump through. We understand how taxing that can be, especially when combined with the other stresses of your job.

One of the best ways to make sure your communication is prompt and efficient is to make sure you are organized. There can be no surprise when a funder asks to see your board roster, tax returns, budget, or program description. Have these items ready to go in an easy to find location (be it a stack of papers or a file-folder on your computer). Anticipating requests means you’ll be more prepared to respond in a timely fashion when the moment arrives.

Just to reiterate point #3: make sure there is executive involvement in as many points of communication as possible. Leadership showing interest in your funder will help you immeasurably.


7. Hire A Seasoned Grant Writer

This may sound self-serving, but it is nonetheless true. Working with knowledgable and personable grant writers will save your staff time to do the million other things that they need to do. Most importantly, they will increase your odds of receiving a grant by communicating professionally with your funder. A third-party grant writer is going to be able to see your organization from an outsider’s perspective that can intuitively identify what questions need to be more thoroughly answered.

Daffy Duck As A Grant Writer

Let somebody else do your wordsmithing.

When hiring a grant writer, look for expertise within your community’s funding landscape, mastery of grant writing best practices, and experience with writing for similar organizations. Take your time, do your research, and make sure you have a good personality match with the writer you finally work with. You’ll be spending a lot of time together.

At the end of the day, it is up to your organization to make sure you hold up your end of the bargain with grant writers. They can only work with the materials you give them. Financial records, board rosters, graphics, program stories, photos – these are things your grant writer can’t create for you. However, they can arrange a cyclone of paperwork into a cohesive document that represents your organization well. They can help you find funding opportunities where you are the most likely to find traction. Once the money is in the bank, they can make sure you have done your due-dilligence in keeping the funder happy so they will be likely to give again.

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