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In a recent webinar, AmPhil experts reminded us that foundations are run by people, not robots. Focus on building relationships, not inputting data.

Last week, some of our brightest minds at AmPhil met to talk about foundation fundraising.

Haven't attended a Scotch Talk yet? Each one is an informal, exploratory conversation on fundraising that we offer free of charge. And, as the name suggests, we recommend you come with your favorite libation in hand—be it scotch, beer, or tea.

This Scotch Talk, in particular, brought me back to the foundations of foundations. That is, they’re all about relationships.

Too often, onerous foundation applications bogged down by bureaucracy cause us to forget that and instead think of foundation funding as transactional rather than relational. We begin to assume that robots are at the helm of foundations: get the inputs right, and a foundation will output funding.

In other words, it's easy to forget that real people run foundations—people who have their own desires, wants, and wishes to make a difference in the world. Remember that the donor is the true hero; you are merely a conduit, providing a means for these funders to change the world.


Where do I find these people who want to change the world through my organization?

Free online tools like ProPublica and GuideStar are great places to start. Search for the foundation you're pursuing, then scroll to see whom they give to and what formal processes they use. By seeing where their money has gone in the past, you can assess who is a good fit for your organization, and focus on the largest gifts first.

You should also consider using paid tools such as DonorSearch, iWave, and Foundation Directory. They offer more details on gift ranges, past giving, and even contact information. Another tactic is to make a list of comparable nonprofits and see who is funding them. Annual reports can provide you with a bevy of information on actual grantors or the issues they focus on.

Really, the behaviors that make you a good foundation fundraiser would also make you an incredible stalker. This is all part of the job.


I've found 20 foundations that look promising. What tools do I need to have to approach a foundation?

Begin with a meeting request letter or letter of inquiry, also referred to as a LOI. People often make the mistake of trying to pack an entire application’s worth of information into an LOI, but that's the wrong course of action. Consider the LOI your jumping-off point to open the door to further conversation.

Keep it simple. What you want to do is say: Hey, we exist. We're working on this problem that we know you care about. Can we talk more about how we can work on it together? This should be no more than 1–2 double-sided pages. Run through these components succinctly, but never keep your emotions out of fundraising.

You should demonstrate that you've done your homework. "Because you've given to these sorts of organizations, and you have a demonstrated commitment to..."

People don't like to feel like they're being sold. Don’t make your pitch "We need money so we can do good things." Instead, it should be "You really care about this mission, and you can work with us to fulfill it."

Appeal to the foundation’s wants and needs, informed by your homework, and present them with the options that fit those wants and needs. Make it explicit that any funding they give will serve the work the foundation cares about.


People want to give money to people they know.

I'm going to describe an obstacle that you should consider a partial success.

If you're told, "We don't accept unsolicited proposals," continue the relationship by responding, "Thanks for letting me know where you are right now. Can I let you know of other work you might be more aligned with in the future?"

Make a note to follow up in three months with an update. Then, continue a cadence of meeting requests and updates. This is how you become a solicited proposal.

It is a foundation's job to find good places to give money, so you’re doing them a favor by following up and reminding them who you are. People don't remember you as much as you remember you.

Letters of inquiry, meeting requests, follow-up, and grant applications all build relationships, which are, again, the bedrock of foundation fundraising.

People want to understand where their money is going.

Your grant applications should make it as easy as possible for donors to give, and should show a clear need and compelling vision. For example, a homeless shelter might say, "With your gift, we’ll serve twice as many hot meals this year." This is an achievable, concrete goal that funders can get behind. A few more tips for making your proposal stand out: 

  • Differentiate between your outputs and the eventual intended outcomes. In other words, make it clear how your actions today will create the change the foundation hopes to see in the world. Explicitly state what the foundation is accomplishing both now and in the future by partnering with you.
  • Strike a happy medium between minimalist layout and full design. High-gloss designs can be time-consuming and take staff away from true priorities, but a foundation officer’s eyes will glaze over when scanning 20 pages of Times New Roman.
  • Design a proposal template in Microsoft Word that pulls in colors, has fonts for headers and the body, and includes a cover letter. Pop out impact statements, or key quotes you want to highlight. Make that proposal skimmable!

A well-designed proposal lends you credibility, and helps the foundation grasp your story quickly.

People want to give to organizations they trust.

Success in foundation fundraising rests on more than just the formalized application process the foundation lays out. It depends on the work you do beforehand, and the extra legwork you put in during the process. Specifically, dedicate time to an underrated part of foundation fundraising: meetings.

You should be requesting meetings before, during, and after grant applications to build up recognition in your community. Being visible forms relationships and will make your grant likely to succeed more than any other tactic. Never stop reminding foundations who you are and why they should partner with you. 

You want to be where foundation executives are and bump into them to ask for meetings. Attend events and conferences. Update your executives on relationships, so they can add needed touchpoints when they bump into funders.


In closing, foundations are not run by robots (yet). By keeping that in mind, you'll find far more success in your foundation fundraising.

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