Know Your Funder’s Love Language By Emily Hampton

To kick off the month of love, I’d like to talk about relationships. In our personal lives, we know that nurturing relationships with our families, friends, and partners is important. Strong relationships provide mutual benefits; we give support to our loved ones as they make steps toward their personal goals, and we hope they do the same for us. As nonprofit leaders and grant professionals, we all know how crucial it is to build solid relationships in order to succeed in reaching our organizational goals, as well. We build relationships with our beneficiaries to make sure our program strategies match their strengths, needs, and solutions. And we build relationships with funders to ensure we have a strong financial foundation to continue offering those programs. Just as every relationship in our personal lives is unique, so are the approaches we must take with funders, depending on whether they are a foundation, corporation, or federal agency. So, let’s talk about the distinct “love language” and which approach to take in building relationships with each of the funders listed below.

Small foundations are probably the easiest type of funder with which to build a close relationship. Most smaller foundations are not only open to meeting you, but they encourage organizations to reach out, as well. You can often call or email to schedule times to speak over the phone or even in person (pre/post-COVID). And they may even help guide your application process toward success. Small foundations are often local, making it easier to communicate with them consistently. Some examples of small foundations include family foundations and others housed under community foundations or banks, stand-alone family foundations, or local health foundations. The only challenge you may encounter with very small family foundations is that some do not have websites or up-to-date contact information. In those instances, you may have to track down a physical address and send a letter of inquiry to start the relationship, old school-style!

Large foundations may seem more intimidating. However, they can be more accessible precisely because of their size. They have more robust websites, processes for inquiry, and staffing employed specifically to communicate with organizations. A good way to start with a large foundation is to review their website in detail before calling or emailing. Often, they will have a very specific way they prefer organizations to get in touch. Keep in mind that some funders only accept applications from organizations who have been invited to apply. In this case, you definitely don’t want to send a request out of the blue. Relationship building is even more necessary in those instances and may require your organization’s development staff or board of directors to utilize their networks to approach those funders and start a conversation. These foundations may also have multiple funding opportunities, so start out by identifying which opportunity matches your need most closely and then check to see if there is a program officer tied to that funding category who you need to contact. Examples of large foundations include national or international foundations, which are often even more targeted in their funding strategies than small foundations.

Corporate foundations are sometimes difficult to distinguish from other foundations. The main difference is that they are set up as a philanthropic arm of a for-profit business. The approach to building relationships with these entities is similar to that of large foundations. Do your research on their website because they will likely have a very specific way they prefer you reach out. I suggest starting out by looking into the largest employers in your area, as most large corporations now have a philanthropic arm. If you can target corporations headquartered locally, that will give you a leg up, as many corporate foundations only fund organizations that serve the communities in which they work.

Federal agencies probably seem the most daunting when it comes to relationship building. They are huge and often seem impersonal. However, relationships are still important in the federal realm, and there are some concrete steps you can take to get started. Attend any webinars offered and look to see if you can find a regional program officer for the program/department of interest. If you have already been denied an award from a federal agency, you can also call the program officer who sent the notification to get feedback and discuss future proposals.

While you may need to take a unique approach with each type of funder, there are a few key components to building strong relationships with funders that are relevant to all:

  • Do your research before reaching out. Make sure your organization and funding needs match the funder’s mission, goals, and strategies.
  • Create a list of questions you have for the funder before making contact (make sure you can’t answer the questions yourself through online research). These may include whether they fund operational costs, capital projects, or just program expenses; what their funding and application timeline looks like; if there is an average range of request you should stay within; and if there is an aspect of your organization/program that appeals to them most.
  • Prepare a BRIEF overview of your organization, who you serve, what you do, and your funding need (both in writing and verbally).
  • In your first contact, focus on discovering the funder’s preferred communication style: do they want to set up a phone call to discuss your organization, or do they prefer an emailed summary to start? But be prepared to discuss on the spot, just in case!

Don’t stress the details too much. Just like in a personal relationship, if you are a good match and you communicate clearly, the funder will LOVE you and want to continue the relationship far into the future. And the payoff will be rewarding, not just for your organization but for the people who benefit so much for your services.

AGS blogs are aligned with the Grant Professional Certification Institute’s Competencies and Skills.

Competency #2: Knowledge of organizational development as it pertains to grant seeking.

Skill 2.8: Identify appropriate methods of working with local, state, and federal agencies and stakeholders to support grant seeking.