The importance of relationship-building in grant fundraising
You know the saying when it comes to real estate. The three most important factors are location, location, location.
When it comes to seeking a grant for your organization, the formula is similar. It all boils down to relationship, relationship, relationship.
As you consider your organization’s goals, priorities, and needs and begin to identify potential grant-makers who could partner with you to bring those to fruition, the next step is to forge strong connections with the people at those foundations or corporate offices.
Much like getting a job, securing a grant with a shot in the dark is possible. But it is far more likely, far more worth your time and effort, and far more rewarding for everyone involved to approach grant application in the context of an ongoing relationship with the real person involved at the other end of the equation.
In this post, we will give an overview of how you can make the connection, cultivate the conversation, and effectively follow through with grant-makers on behalf of your organization. As always, we invite you to reach out to us with any questions or for help in any part of the grant process.
Making the connection
Not surprisingly, experienced grant-makers agree that relationships loom large in their decision to accept a request. Unlike a “cold proposal” without the benefit of a relationship, a winning strategy includes an open dialogue before, during, and after the proposal is submitted, accepted, and executed.
Many grants are listed as “proposals by invitation only” or include the disclaimer “unsolicited proposals are rarely funded.” Thinking like a grant-maker, it is no stretch to conclude that many more grants that do not include the same caveat are nonetheless awarded to known organizations.
There are a number of ways you can make an initial connection with a grant-maker, which is most often represented by a Program Manager whose role is to build relationships with organizations like yours.
The first and often-overlooked path of connection is to take inventory of your existing business and personal acquaintances. Browse your LinkedIn profile, comb through your Facebook friends, and check through your email inbox. A friend, classmate, fellow colleague, or mutual friend may be associated with a grant-maker that aligns with your mission—or at least can point you in the right direction of local groups that do.
Beyond this first step, there are a couple of simple ways to put your organization on a grant-maker’s radar. As you research potential grantors, follow them on social media and look for ways to show up in their feed in a positive way. That means maintaining discipline in your messaging—avoiding unnecessary forays into politics or off-topic issues, for instance—in order to establish your organization as a thoughtful, thorough, and credible entity in your potential grant-maker’s mind.
While you are at it, add the potential grant-maker to your email list and find a way to get on theirs. This initial step can prime the pump for future proposals, and will tip you off to upcoming events where you can meet your potential grant-maker in person.
There are no substitutes for in-person, face-to-face interactions, so don’t miss a chance to attend these events and introduce yourself. When you do, go prepared to make an elevator pitch and share your passion for what you do and why. That first impression is always a lasting one, so make sure to take advantage of the opportunity.
Cultivate the conversation
Now that you have established a relationship, you can be on the lookout for available grants. While it is ideal to be invited to apply for a grant—again, a situation that will be far more likely in the context of a relationship—your connection with the foundation or other grant-maker gives you the opportunity to inquire about grants before going through the time-consuming process of applying.
A simple phone call, email, or lunch meeting can go a long way for both parties, conserving valuable work hours on your end, while building valuable credibility in the eyes of your grant-maker. One research project shows that a third of grantees interviewed had been previously turned down from the foundation that is now funding them. Even if the answer on a specific grant is “no,” you can still benefit from the reaching out—if for no other reason than that you saved you both valuable time and energy.
An initial conversation can also allow you to pivot from a closed door to an open opportunity. It may be that the grant you had in mind does not align as well as you thought it might have, but in the course of conversation, you find out that another available grant does fit your needs.
Imagine a grant for community events had your attention. Although the answer is no for that particular goal, as you talk with the Program Manager over coffee, you find that the foundation is offering a separate grant to fund staff development—another priority for your organization for which you can begin the application process in the next couple of weeks.
Keep in mind that your goal is not simply to win one grant, but rather, to build long-term organizational health. That means approaching every grant opportunity with optimism, professionalism, courtesy, passion, and personability.
Or, to put it more succinctly, your strategy is all tied up in relationship, relationship, relationship.
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