Capacity Building Series – Part II: Why Relationships Matter

In the first part of this blog, we learned why it is important to build relationships with funders and explored some ideas to help create genuine relationship connections. Now, let’s focus on the many ways an organization can approach funders and initiate engagement.

Approaching a funder in a personalized way to strengthen or establish a relationship can make a big impact and there are many ways you can do so. Consider the following:

  • Call a funder. For example, is a program officer available at the foundation for a call? Have a phone script ready with some sample questions to ask. They can answer any questions you have about the foundation’s giving and/or current grant cycle.
  • Write a letter of introduction/inquiry/interest. A letter to a foundation might be the first impression you make with a funder about your organization. Since these types of letters are often a page or two, the key is to be concise and compelling. Convert your elevator pitch (see below) into written format, telling the funder what your organization does and the outcomes of your organization’s work, sharing an impact story, and how you align with the funder’s aims.
  • Network (Board of Directors, professional associations, foundations). Once you’ve made a list of contacts with whom you want to establish a relationship, look for ways to interact with them. Friend them on LinkedIn and “like” their posts. This will keep you on their minds. Foundation leaders often attend and speak at conferences and seminars. If there is a foundation representative there, try to seek them out or attend their session. Introduce yourself and ask to exchange business cards (yes, business cards are still a thing!). Make sure to follow-up after the event saying it was nice to meet them.
  • Connect on social media. Sharing news on social media – impact stories, client testimonials, upcoming events, etc. – can attract the interest of funders. Also, be sure to follow the social media platforms of current and potential funders. Funders often post about upcoming grant opportunities, share stories about grantees (helpful to determine if you are a funding fit), and highlight issues they care about so you can learn about their funding priorities.
  • Ask for an introduction. When cultivating a relationship, having an introduction can go a long way. Create a list of trustees and staff from the “invitation only” funders you have identified. Share these lists with your organization’s own staff and board members to determine who they might know. Would they make an introduction?
  • Send invitations. Invite a funder for a site visit of your facility with opportunities to see your mission in action, or an upcoming event along with complimentary tickets if you can spare one or two. Review your organization’s programs, events, and offerings at least quarterly to determine which are the most powerful platforms for “friendraising.” Consider your list of foundation contacts and send an invitation to an activity or event you think might be of interest to them—it’s particularly effective coming from someone they know! Ask a board or staff member the funder knows to send the invite with a personal note.

Elevator Pitches

Imagine having only a few precious minutes – or even one minute – with a funder you have been trying to meet.  How do you make a connection with that funder? What do you say? The ability to deliver a strong elevator pitch can be a gamechanger. It’s an opportunity to share your organization’s story in a compelling way. Share your passion. Write a script. An elevator pitch can be used for so many occasions–your letter of interest to a funder, grant applications, fundraising campaigns, phone calls, meetings, etc.

Here are some tips:

  • Utilize storytelling skills to share the impact of your organization – aim for 60 seconds or less.
  • Start with the hook – 10 seconds or less – who you serve, how you help, and what impact you make.
  • The pitch – 30 seconds
  • What differentiates your nonprofit from others in the same space?
  • How effective are your current programs?
  • Do you have a compelling story?
  • How can a prospective funder get involved right now?
  • What do you plan to accomplish in the near and distant future?
  • The wrap up – 20 seconds – “the ask”/what outcome are you seeking?

Remember, this is just a general guide – consider adapting your elevator pitch to meet the moment. It should sound natural so be sure to practice! Start by practicing with friends first, get their feedback, and practice as often as you can. Practice will help build your confidence and improve your flow and pace, allowing you to sound more natural and compelling.

Maintaining the Relationship

Now let’s keep that momentum going. Once you’ve approached the funder, the relationship building has only just begun! Cultivating, building, and maintaining your relationship with a funder can not only increase your chances of getting the grant, but also help the funder feel appreciated and valued as you stay connected after receiving the grant.

Remember, relationship building with a funder often begins when seeking a grant but doesn’t end there. It should continue throughout the inquiry and application process and even after being awarded a grant or not.

After Being Awarded the Grant:

  • Most importantly, express your gratitude! Send funders thank you emails, handwritten notes or cards, or even give them a call just to say thank you.
  • Be transparent. Maintain honest and open communication with your funder. Share your organization’s needs and challenges—being vulnerable and sharing wins as well as pain points will allow the funder to get a better sense of what your organization needs from their support.
  • Connect with funder staff and board—remember, they’re passionate about the work, too!
    • Ask if they’d like to be added to your email list to stay updated on big developments.  
    • Get more personalized and offer information and updates on your organization’s programs and projects during one-on-one time via phone, mail, email, etc.
    • Utilize social media networks to continue to engage and stay connected. You can use LinkedIn to see if anyone in your network is connected with key foundation program officers. If so, ask if they can give you an introduction.
  • Get creative! Try some of the following approaches:
    • Share stories of lives changed and impacts made—storytelling is a strong way to connect, show appreciation, and strengthen a relationship. 
    • Invite them for a site visit tour and/or to events.
    • Call to ask for advice.

If You Did Not Get a Grant Award:

  • First of all, don’t be discouraged. Most funders receive far more proposals than they can support.
  • Thank the funder. Express your gratitude for the funder reviewing your proposal.
  • Seek feedback about your proposal. It can be extremely helpful to see what strengths and weaknesses the funder noted in your application. Important to note: some funders/foundations will let you know in their application guidelines if they are able to provide any feedback.
  • If you remain interested in the funder, keep in touch, and follow their social media platforms.
  • Try again. Yes, reapply when eligible. If you were able to obtain feedback about your previous proposal, incorporate that feedback into your proposal.

As we’ve discussed in this two-part blog, successful grant seeking can include much more than submitting a proposal or application. Building a relationship with funders is foundational and key to helping your organization secure funding and support your mission.

Now you can apply some of these relationship building principles and practices to your grant seeking efforts. We hope these strategies and tips help you and your organization.

Discussion (You can leave a comment below to continue the conversastion.)

  • Which types of funders has your organization connected with and how? Are there types of funders you want to reach out to, and which ones? Has networking been on your radar and how has that been for your organization?
  • What approaches have you used to reach prospective funders?
  • What were some challenges you have faced when trying to connect or maintain a relationship with a funder? How did you overcome them? Has anyone had similar experiences with these challenges/methods and have other solutions in mind?
  • How does your organization maintain relationships with funders?
  • For those organizations working in rural areas, what are your experiences/approaches? Frustrations?

*In Part 3 of this blog series, we will explore the practice of building collaborative relationships with peers and nonprofit organizations.

Click here to read Part 1 of this blog series, Building Realtionships with Funders. author pics

About the author: Chloé Laurence (she/her)

With a professional background working in education, mental health counseling spaces, and the nonprofit sector, Chloé serves her community through education, advocacy, and capacity building. She utilizes her love of learning and connecting with people in her work as a Capacity Building Specialist at Methodist Healthcare Ministries to support and empower our funded partners. Her mission is to strengthen our partners’ organizations so they can continue their incredible work building health equity and serving underserved individuals.