Ever wonder what really happens to your LOI once a foundation receives it?
Well, to pull back the curtain and give us some insight, the Center for Civil Society recently hosted Catherine Koenen, executive director of the Gianforte Family Foundation, and Marshall J. Sana, senior program officer of the Apex Foundation, for a conversation about foundations fundraising.
How better to get some insight into engaging foundations than to get the intel straight from the source?
Here are a few key takeaways to make sure that your foundations outreach is the best it can be.
First and foremost, do your research! Rushing to get as many LOIs out the door as possible may seem like a smart move, but I promise it will be useless if you are not targeting foundations that have a mission that is aligned with yours.
All foundations have a mission—whether it is stated explicitly or exemplified through their giving history—and fundraisers do well to identify that mission to determine alignment before reaching out. This does not mean you should mold and squeeze your organization’s work just to fit a foundation’s goals. It simply means that not every foundation is a good match.
This also doesn’t mean your outreach should be slow. You can still—and probably should—send plenty of LOIs, but you need to scale your outreach to your research capacity.
Once your reach out, remember that each foundation is unique and may or may not have a formal process. After you get in touch with a letter, email, or online contact form, follow up by phone (or another email) to keep your organization fresh in their mind and at the top of their review pile.
Once you manage to schedule a phone call or a meeting, don’t hesitate to ask questions. Get to know what they like to see, what the review board is interested in, and how you can increase your chances for success. And don’t be shy about ask amounts either! You can—and should—ask them directly how much they recommend you ask for.
The details are important. If a foundation has required sections, use their exact heading, for instance—this will make it as easy as possible for the program officer to review and compare. Moreover, be sure to proofread your materials. A few errors here and there happen (we’re human right?), but don’t allow repeated or glaring errors to occur. Design matters, as well: a clean but unique design never hurts. But most important is clarity and candor about challenges and opportunities. Avoid typos and design well, yes—but present clearly and honestly, above all else.
Your proposal should also include metrics, but make sure that the star of the show is the story you tell. Picture it like this: the numbers you share are the skeleton—they provide some bones to the flesh and blood that is your story. The story should guide the reader: identify the problem, show how your organization is the answer to the problem, how you’ll address that problem, and how they can be a part of the solutions. (Check out this series on storytelling to hone your narrative and hear more about its importance.)
And once you’ve found a winning proposal, you should feel confident about reapplying and renewing next year (pending good communication—see below). Once a foundation likes a grantee—not unlike individual donors—their chances of getting another grant are much higher. Plan on renewals and, just like your earlier grant, feel free to speak with your contact about what to apply for and how much to ask for. For some good news: don’t stress about creating a new proposal when the ask is the same. You’ve found a winning proposal, so stick with it. Of course, you want to update names, dates, goals, metrics, and so on—but don’t feel the need to completely overhaul. Use your time wisely, and upcycle your current proposal.
A final note on timing. We all wonder whether it helps to apply well before a deadline. Happily, our guests said that an early application is of minor consequence. There is one caveat, of course. If a foundation gives out grants on a rolling basis, then yes, applying earlier on will ensure your chance to receive funds. You can deal with a rejection by re-applying sooner than later, and you increase your chances of being at the front of the giving for the year.
Communicate, communicate, communicate. Don’t underestimate the value of your relationship with your foundation contact—they are the ones who go to bat for you with the board, after all. You want to be kind and courteous with them, and you want to respect their time. That means you should be in touch—and not infrequently—but your communication should be brief and to the point, just like your communication with any other relation or contact.
From initial outreach to reporting results, it is essential to frequently reach out to your contact. These touchpoints don’t need to be formal documents or long-winded emails. Clear and concise communications are just right. A quick, casual email or phone call is a perfect way of keeping them informed (and it’s more like a normal human interaction).
Similarly, remember to invite them for a site visit to see your programs in action, and invite them to other events throughout the year. They may or may not visit you, but all of this keeps them informed as to how things are going. You also want to keep them up to date on your progress towards the numbers and goals you pitched—and if you don’t hit them, don’t skirt the subject or spin the numbers. Ideally, you’ve been in touch throughout the year, so wherever you land should not be a problem. What’s key is not that you hit every goal, but that you honestly fought for every goal and that you learned something. Telling the truth about successes and failures—and what you learned because of them—is likely to increase your chances of a renewed gift.
At the end of the day, remember to treat foundations like a friend. You should check in with them and share updates—aim to strengthen your relationship through consistent communication.
Ready to take your foundations fundraising to the next level? Sign up for an "In the Trenches" master class on The Elements of Grant Writing, with Jeff Cain and Iain Bernhoft. Learn how to craft a winning proposal during this three-hour, hands-on master class. Learn more and sign up here! The next class is on March 10th at 1:00pm EST.