5 min read

The market is down and we are all stuck at home. One thing hasn’t changed: foundations are required to spend 5% of their corpus.

Today’s economic climate emphasizes two things for fundraisers: the importance of diversified contributions revenue and the importance of strong relationships with your donors.

An organization that is too dependent on one revenue stream—whatever it is—is vulnerable to volatility in the economy. An organization that fails to cultivate strong relationships with donors is vulnerable to volatility for another reason. In economic downturns, donors are likely to pull back on their giving in some capacity and for some amount of time. You want to be one of the organizations that makes the cut—and that’s much more likely if you have a strong relationship.

If you’ve spent time around me or my colleagues, odds are you’ve heard us say several things:

  1. people give to people, and
  2. foundations are people too.

Effective fundraisers know that building strong relationships with major individual donors is critical for continued support. But many forget that the same is true for foundation donors. While it’s true that foundation fundraising can often seem more formal and process-oriented, even sterile, it’s still the case that there are people behind all those hoops and forms and deadlines and guidelines. At the end of the day, grant decisions are made by people (or strongly influenced by people) whom you, as a fundraiser, either know well or do not know well.

Right now, those people are more important than ever for your nonprofit. Foundations have the potential to play a major role in stabilizing the nonprofit sector this year and helping many nonprofits get through this crisis with their missions and operations intact. Unlike individual donors, foundations are legally required to spend a certain amount of money each year and much of that goes out the door in the form of grants. Giving away money is their job, and that’s a good thing for nonprofits right now. What’s more, many foundations have explicitly committed to giving above and beyond their minimum distribution requirement this year and to being more flexible and responsive in other ways.

While it’s true that giving priorities and funding levels may shift this year to address COVID-specific issues, keep in mind that many foundations still have a broader mission and strategy to execute. So while there may be some additional or hyper-specific causes they support this year, they’re more likely to take a “both/and” approach than to abandon past efforts and make a wholesale change.

Whether your organization receives foundation support or not, now’s a great time for many organizations to be reaching out to foundations. Here are some things to keep in mind as you do that.

Current foundation donors

Priority number one is to get in touch with your current foundation funders. Those who have funded you before care about you and your mission. While they may have more on their minds right now than usual, their concern for your mission has not changed.

Use this opportunity to build your relationship. Let them know how you’re faring, how you’re carrying on your mission during the chaos. Let them know about your worries and about how you’re preparing to mitigate them. Let them know what changes you’ve made, if any, to react and respond. Let them know that you’re more grateful for their support than ever.

If they have already made a 2020 gift to you and the changing environment is affecting your ability to execute on the grant terms in the same time frame, you’ll want to begin that conversation right away. If the current crisis is not affecting your ability to spend the grant properly, you still want to let them know that. This is a great opportunity to thank them for their support and to strengthen your relationship. It’s also a chance to learn more about the strategic decisions they are making. There may even be an opportunity to submit another grant request or receive additional assistance.

If they have not yet made a gift in 2020, you’ll want to find out how the coronavirus situation is affecting their giving. Are they giving less? More? Do they have COVID-specific grantmaking priorities that will be helpful or harmful for you? Are they charging ahead with no changes? Have proposal guidelines, reporting requirements, or deadlines shifted? Whatever their strategic response to the current crisis, you’ll want to be informed so you know whether you need to adjust your plans.

Prospective foundations

Much is in flux in the grantmaking world—just like everywhere else. That might make you think that you should pause on foundation solicitations, but that’s the wrong judgment to make. Just as putting the brakes on your direct-mail program is inadvisable, so too is slowing down your outreach to foundations. Keep up the activity. It takes time, but it will pay off when you find the right matches. The foundation world is aware of possible declines in donations and many are actively seeking to offset those declines to the extent they can so that nonprofits can survive and even flourish.

You probably know that most foundations are notoriously difficult to get in touch with. Unfortunately, it may be even more difficult right now as they are responding to current needs, shifting priorities, communicating with current grantees, and so on—perhaps while working from home with limited access to their work materials and multiple children to feed and educate.

Nevertheless, stay the course and keep trying to make contact. Prioritize calls and emails over physical mail since offices may be closed, and aim whenever possible to have a personal conversation before submitting a proposal or inquiry. If that’s not possible, go through the inquiry or proposal process and be sure to follow any available guidelines for submission.

If you do have a call, you have a natural hook for the conversation. Rather than the stale (but essential) “I’d like to learn more about your grantmaking priorities,” you can ask how the current situation is affecting their grantmaking priorities. That’s a much more natural lead-in to a conversation and will give you the same or better information.

Review your messaging

Whether in conversation or in your materials, you’ll want to be prepared to share how your organization is responding to the crisis. Are you negatively impacted? Are you shifting your priorities? What are you doing to continue advancing your mission even as everyone is quarantined? How is your mission and work of continued (or greater) importance now?

This doesn’t mean that you need to change everything about your messaging. Far from it. But you do need to acknowledge the current climate and situate your mission within the broader landscape of needs right now. At the least, a cover letter accompanying your proposal should acknowledge the current situation and thank them not only for their time reviewing the proposal, but for their time reviewing the proposal in the midst of the pandemic. Needless to say, any additional connection between the proposal and the COVID crisis should be mentioned, too.

The same holds true for your letters of inquiry: mention the current environment up front and make a case for your continued relevance. Acknowledge that they are busy and that philanthropy, now more than ever, is essential for helping our country in diverse ways. Of course, use the pandemic as an angle for the phone call, too: you are interested in learning how they are responding to the situation at hand, you’d love to share how your organization is responding, and to learn what ideas they might have, too.


The wonderful thing about foundations is that they can and must continue to give money away even when other donors can’t. This makes foundations a key part of a stable and diversified contributions portfolio—and the easiest place to approach for gifts during an economic downturn. They can be of critical help to nonprofits right now, just as they have during lean times in the past. And as you seek to build up your foundation support, remember: foundations are people too! 

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