#093 May/Jun 1997

Schmoozing 101: Developing Relationships with Foundation Officers

If you want to raise money through grant proposals, one of the most important things you can do is develop strong, peer-to-peer relationships with the decision makers. The value of […]

If you want to raise money through grant proposals, one of the most important things you can do is develop strong, peer-to-peer relationships with the decision makers. The value of these relationships is stressed in the National Network of Grantmakers’ booklet, What is Good Grantmaking for Social Justice?

“While it is less of a ‘good old boys’ network, grantmaking is still conducted primarily within a ‘closed’ community to which few grantseekers have access… ‘Who knows whom’ is still the operative question in determining likely success in raising money for an organization or project…”

The old fundraiser’s cliche, “People give money to people, not organizations,” is especially relevant in the grantmaking world. Here are a few guidelines for creating healthy, productive relationships with funders.

      1. All grantmakers are unique. As Jon Jensen of the George Gund Foundation says, “Every foundation is different. Treat them like different people. It’s not a standard process.” Indeed, most foundations are guided by several individuals, each with their own interests, priorities, peculiarities, and relative degrees of power over grantmaking decisions.

2. Treat foundation officers as peers. This can be difficult to do, given the basic power inequities in the relationship. However, most funders want to be addressed as equals.

When asked what annoys him, Martin Teitel of the CS Fund says, “People who use drippy, obsequious, beseeching language as if they are Mozart and I am the Duke of Salzburg. A little dignity looks good in a proposal!”

Marjorie Fine of the Unitarian Universalist Veatch Program at Shelter Rock says point-blank, “Don’t suck up to grantmakers. On the other hand, don’t be impolite. Grantmakers each have their own points of view – don’t treat them like blank slates.”

3. You’re human, so admit it. Treating foundation officers as peers means acknowledging your discomfort and mistakes. You should present your organization in the best possible light, but it’s also important to tell the truth about your errors and the obstacles you face – and your strategies for overcoming them.

4. Be professional. Professionalism begins with homework; do the most thorough and accurate job you can. At a basic level, this means proofreading your letters and proposals, spelling names correctly, keeping track of who works at which foundation, and so forth.

For an example of how not to be professional, listen to Quincey Tompkins Imhoff of the Foundation for Ecology and Development: “Our foundation used to be named Ira-Hiti (a Native American word). It was changed three years ago, yet we still get mail addressed to Mr. Ira Hiti: “Dear Mr. Hiti….”

Professionalism also means treating everyone with courtesy, regardless of their job title or status. As Marjorie Fine of the Unitarian Universalist Veatch Program says, “Be very respectful to administrative staff – they’re not just secretarial cardboard. I understand the frustration with the concept of gatekeepers, but if you get to know the administrative people well, a lot of doors will open for you.”

5. Accept defeat gracefully and move on. Professionals file their rejection letters and move on to the next funder or the next proposal. In researching my book, Grassroots Grants, I was amazed to learn that some grantseekers actually dump their frustration on foundation staff.

Ellen Furnari, formerly of the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation, tells this story: “I welcome people calling to ask about their proposals, but sometimes they’re angry and nasty. And I wonder, do they think this will help? You don’t want a grantmaker to think you’re desperate.”

Complaining is a big strategic mistake, since you might want to approach the same funder in the future. There’s no advantage to burning your bridges behind you. As John Tirman of the Winston Foundation for World Peace says, “Whining about not getting a grant almost ensures you won’t be considered seriously the next time.”

Assuming you can maintain your composure, it’s acceptable to call the foundation and ask why your proposal wasn’t approved. It’s much easier to do this, and maintain a friendly tone of voice, if you’ve had previous contact with the foundation officer.

You might even receive some encouragement. Cinthia Schuman of the Rockefeller Family Fund says, “Our foundation has funded organizations we previously rejected. While I don’t recommend coming back on a regular basis, if you feel it was a close call, it can be useful to check in every year or so.”

Foundation officers can also suggest other prospects. Jon Jensen recommends that you, “Ask foundation staff about other potential funders. Many will give you names, especially if they’ve said no to your proposal. They might feel guilty and want to do something to help you.”

In the next issue of Shelterforce, we’ll discuss the nuts-and-bolts of how and where to meet grantmakers. In the meantime, remember this: if you dedicate yourself to developing these relationships, your odds of receiving grants will dramatically improve. The Sea Islands Land Retention Project, which had a proposal featured in Grassroots Grants, was funded, in part, because of the mutual respect between grantmaker and grantee. Judy Austermiller of the Boehm Foundation tells the story this way:

“Nina Morais, the author and project developer, convinced me to meet with her, having been recommended by a colleague. We made a $5,000 seed grant. The key was Nina Morais herself – an impressive woman. In the end, we fund not just good plans or ideas, but people who we ‘bet’ have the skill and drive and commitment to carry the plans off.”



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