Foundation support is critical to the work of the nonprofit community. But the pathway for pursuing foundation support for your nonprofit organization can seem more like the winding passageways in a maze than a clear cut trajectory.
There is both an art and science to learning how to approach foundations for support, how to craft grant proposals that stand out from the pack, and how to maintain long-term relationships with foundation program directors. Charlotte Dion of the Foundation Center offers valuable tips for nonprofits as she answers questions from TSNe-Bulletin staff on the foundation grant process.
Researching Foundation Priorities
TSNe-Bulletin: It seems that the first step to pursuing foundation support is understanding which foundations support your nonprofit organization’s type of work. How do you go about learning what a foundation’s priorities are?
Charlotte Dion: It’s important to [learn about a foundation’s priorities] thorough research. Look at the website. Call or write for the most current application guidelines or application form. Read the annual report if the foundation publishes one. And of course we encourage everyone to visit one of the Foundation Center’s 5 library/learning centers or nearly 350 Cooperating Collections (foundationcenter.org/collections) for free access to Foundation Directory Online, our searchable database of more than 90,000 U.S. grantmakers and their grants.
Making the Initial Contact
TSNe-Bulletin: Once you see a match between your work and a foundation’s priorities, what’s the best way to approach the foundation? Who do you email, call or write, and which form of communication is better for first contact?
Charlotte Dion: The approach depends on the foundation. Most entries in Foundation Directory Online indicate the appropriate contact person for grant applicants. And, of course, foundation websites and application guidelines will often provide a contact person.
Sending a brief letter of inquiry or a proposal is usually the preferred approach, but some funders will require a specific application form be filled out, and a few may even require an online application.
If you decide to call, and some funders do encourage this, do your basic research first. You want to make it clear that you respect the grantmaker’s time and that you understand the foundation’s interest areas and can explain why there is a “fit” with your organization’s work.
In other words, you’ve already “done your homework” prior to the call. It’s not just a fishing expedition.
Writing and Sending the Proposal
TSNe-Bulletin: While just “getting in the door” can feel daunting for some nonprofit staff, many more obsess about the actual grant writing. Could you share tips on writing the grant proposal?
Charlotte Dion: We could spend a whole day on this and do [at the Foundation Center], but here are a few tips for nonprofit grantseekers:
- Read the funder’s guidelines. If you don’t qualify, don’t apply. Some funders say they do not accept unsolicited applications. Others say they give only to pre‑selected organizations. If that’s the case, you may need to cultivate the funder to get on their approved list. But probably you should not make this your top priority if you are under time constraints.
- Include a cover letter referring to any previous conversations you may have had with the funder, but don’t misrepresent what was said. (In other words, don’t say you were “invited” to apply, if this is not the case.)
- Make sure contact information is easy to find on the very first page of your proposal and that it includes the name of the key contact person at your nonprofit.
- Don’t be a “deadline squeezer.” Submit your proposal early enough so that if the person reviewing the proposal has a question or needs more information, there is time to follow up.
- Make sure your writing is clear and concise – and avoid jargon.
- Try to be interesting as well as informative. You are telling – and selling – a story.
- Don’t spend a lot of time on elaborate packaging or money on expensive delivery services.
- Don’t assume email submissions are acceptable unless the grantmaker emails you first or it is stated in their application procedures that email is okay.
- Be sure that what is itemized in your budget reflects what’s in the narrative. Don’t ask for less or more than you actually need. Follow up by phone if possible.
- Call to check that the proposal was received – after 2 to 3 weeks – and ask if any further information is needed. But do not [make] repeated calls asking when you might hear their decision.
Inquiring About Off-Cycle Funding
TSNe-Bulletin: Are there times outside of the usual grant application cycle when a nonprofit organization might have success in approaching a foundation?
Charlotte Dion: There may be unusual circumstances such as natural or other disasters when grantmakers respond to an urgent need outside of their usual grant cycles. Generally, however, grantseekers should simply pay close attention to deadlines and be sure to meet them. These deadlines are often linked to dates when board members meet. However, you may be able to provide brief information about your current work, or even request a meeting, at other times.
Obtaining Funding for Capacity Building
TSNe-Bulletin: Lastly, how to get funds for infrastructure vs. specific program initiatives?
Charlotte Dion: Obtaining funding for non‑programmatic purposes can be a challenge, but there are more grantmakers today that provide other types of support such as general operating support and capacity building grants as well as seed money. The Foundation Center’s database is designed to help nonprofits identify these funders.
Of course, it’s important to be sure these funders share your field of interest, e.g., arts, education, youth, health, and that they make grants of the size and type you need, and most especially in your geographic area.
Guarding Against Economic Fluctuations
TSNe-Bulletin: What can nonprofit organizations do to guard against grant losses in difficult economic times?
Charlotte Dion: Diversifying your revenue sources is one strategy that is highly recommended. As part of your fund-raising plan, try to identify multiple possibilities for support – earned income, government contracts, foundation, corporate and other institutional funders, and individual donors.
Individuals are the key source of support for many nonprofits along with earned income. Maintain good relationships with your current donors so that you can turn to them for advice and support in a time of economic downturn. When times are good, try to create a reserve fund for emergencies. Be prepared by knowing which activities are critical to your core programs and which could be suspended if necessary.
Be realistic ‑ some losses may be inevitable if funders simply have less money to give.
Charlotte Dion is the director of the library/learning center at the Foundation Center’s main office in New York. Her work at the center includes assisting library visitors in their search for funding, teaching classes in the basics of grantseeking and corporate giving, and speaking about the center’s work at community forums. She also creates programs bringing grantmakers, nonprofits, and technical assistance providers together, and she works strategically with colleagues in the field to educate the public about philanthropy.
Dion is a member of the steering committee of the New York Technical Assistance Providers Network (NYTAP) and represents the Center in such organizations as the Alliance for Nonprofit Management and Governance Matters. She is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts and Rutgers University.