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February 15, 2017

How Foundations Work: Quick Tips from a Recent Funder Panel

Last week, I attended a panel of Colorado funders at the Nonprofit Learning Lab Conference in Denver and was reminded of how wonderful our community of foundation professionals is in this state.

Here’s what that funder panel said about how foundations work and how YOU can be successful:

“Remember, we’re not just trying to fund programs. We’re trying to affect community change.”

Foundations have their own measurable objectives. They’re looking across organizations and issues to get the biggest bang for their buck. Help them understand where you fit into the bigger picture of your particular issue so they know their dollars will be leveraged.

“We take a ‘portfolio’ approach.”

You may think your organization is the best thing since sliced bread, but remember that most foundations are funding multiple issues and multiple organizations within those issues. If they’ve already got a geographic area or particular population covered, they may not be ready to add another organization or program to that part of their portfolio. Try to get an understanding of where you fit into their family of grantees.

“Call and ask us questions.”

Of course, this isn’t possible with all foundations, but you should absolutely try to speak with a program officer whenever you can get through. It’s their job to help you be successful. And, it’s your job to help them fully understand what solutions you’re offering and to equip them to represent you to their board (the people who really make the funding decisions).

“Demonstrate broad-based community support.”

Foundations generally don’t want to be the sole funder of any organization or project. They don’t want staff to be laid off if they decline a grant. You need to show funders that your program has the potential to succeed with or without them in the long run, even if you really, really need their support right now!

“Develop a relationship with us before applying for large or multi-year grants.”

It’s rare that any donor, including foundations, will give you the largest potential gift the first time around. Big gifts and pledges come from the trust and confidence engendered after you have delivered on a smaller grant or two. So, don’t overreach unless a program officer specifically tells you to.

“Trying hard is not good enough.”

That’s the name of a book on program evaluation and you should read it! It was specifically cited by one of the funder panelists. Basically, foundations want to know: How much do you plan to do? How well will you do it? Will anyone be better off because you did it?

“We’re frustrated with the pace of change, too.”

Foundation professionals are looking for ways to dislodge long entrenched social problems. After all, many of them have invested tens of millions (or more!) into issues like homelessness, only to see homelessness on the rise.   When I asked what trends were emerging for foundations fundraising, one of the panelists talked about Collective Impact.  This is a way of collaborating across sectors (government, nonprofit, business) to make large scale change. If you’re interested in learning more about it, check out the Collective Impact Forum.

“If your proposal is declined, take heart.”

The hardest thing about being a program officer is that they have to say “no” to really great projects. There just isn’t enough money to go around. If you’ve done your research and submitted a solid proposal, chances are you’re just not a fit for right now and you can go back again in a year.

Which leads us to a final tip from Front Range Source — if you want foundation funding, you must expect to receive declines. Prepare yourself and your board for that fact and look at the return on investment in terms of a long-term grant seeking program, not just this year’s efforts.

In other words, get in the game and stay there! 


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