Schmoozing 102: How to Meet Foundation Officers

In Schmoozing 101, in the last issue of Shelterforce, we discussed the value of developing strong, healthy relationships with grantmakers. Before turning to specific ways to meet foundation officers, here are five points to remember.

1.

      All grantmakers are unique – it’s not a standard process.

2.

      Treat foundation officers as peers. Get off your knees and stop begging.

3.

      Be professional. Do your homework, follow instructions, honor your commitments.

4.

      You’re human, so admit it. Acknowledge your mistakes – remember, you’re dealing with peers, so it doesn’t pay to cover things up – and describe your plans to improve the situation.

5.

    Accept defeat gracefully and move on. It’s okay to ask why a proposal was turned down, but never whine, complain, or get angry.

So now that you’re on your best behavior, it’s time to meet the grantmakers. Here are five ideas for getting your foot in the door.

1. Meet them at the foundation office. The simplest strategy is to call and, after you’ve described your project and gauged their interest, request a meeting. But first you should read the guidelines and assess your likelihood of getting a grant. No grants officer will choose to meet with you if your work is completely outside the foundation’s area of interest, so do your homework first.

2. Attend “meet the grantmaker” events. Community foundations and nonprofit resource centers often host “meet the grantmakers” workshops, which include panel discussions, questions from the audience, and opportunities for grantseekers to meet foundation and corporate philanthropy staff. Check with your local community foundation, United Way, Foundation Center library collection, volunteer center, or other community service centers to learn if something similar is offered in your area.

3. Go to conferences. Hang out where the funders meet, and shake as many hands as you can. For example, the National Network of Grantmakers (NNG) holds annual conferences for member foundations and invites a limited number of social change organizations in the host region to participate.

As you can imagine, getting an invitation to these events can be difficult. The best strategy is to contact the conference organizers well in advance and find out if the program has a particular theme. If the theme fits your organization’s work, offer to make a presentation or serve on a panel.

4. Invite grants officers to visit your facility. This is the traditional “site visit,” which typically occurs after you have submitted a proposal. These meetings are often initiated by foundation staff: “Your group has been chosen as a finalist for our next grant round, and we would like to come out to meet with you to discuss the project.”

However, there is no reason why you can’t initiate contact and invite the grantmaker to tour your facility. Nearly all the cover letters I’ve ever written end with the phrase, “If you need more information, or would like to arrange a site visit, please contact me.” Sometimes I would follow the letter with a phone call to repeat the invitation.

If your group is selected for a site visit, consider the following points of etiquette.

Energize your workplace. Nobody wants to give money to a comatose organization. Drummond Pike of the Tides Foundation calls this “The Smelling-and-Listening-and-Looking Test,” in a Summer 1988 Whole Earth Review article, “How Foundations Decide Who Gets Their Money.” He writes, “Try to go see the people in their place of business. Find out if the phones ring, if people talk and smile at one another, and if the place smells busy. See if they talk TO you or AT you. And find out if they can make you a cup of coffee or tea; if not, you might wonder how much time people really spend there.”While you’re warming up the coffee pot, you might get out the broom and mop and clean the office.

Give your best show and tell. At Native Seeds/SEARCH, an organization that works to preserve traditional native crops of the Southwest, we always joked that if we could just get foundation staff into our seed bank, they would fund our proposals.

Why? The seed bank is a stimulating place, filled with beautiful crops, pungent smells, and lots of interesting textures. Spend a few minutes among the jars of beans, ears of multi-colored corn, chiles tied into ristras, and dried gourds hanging from the ceiling, and the connections between genetic and cultural diversity become abundantly clear. For people besieged with paper, direct sensory experience is a treat. It helps them understand your mission on an instinctive, emotional level.

Think about how you can best present the emotional side of your organization. If you run a clinic, a pre-school, or a shelter, give funders a chance to tour the facility and talk with the clients. If you sponsor a community garden, don’t meet in the office – go to the garden. If you’re launching a capital campaign for a new building, go out to the site, unroll the blueprints, and walk around – “The front door will be here with a view of the mountains to the north, the nursery will be over here…” In other words, take your ideas – which have been thoughtfully laid out in your proposal – and make them tangible.

5. Invite funders to observe your group in action. Encourage grantmakers to attend your next public event – rally, performance, news conference, voter education workshop. You can also (if you dare) invite funders to attend internal meetings or strategy sessions. The advantage of this arrangement is that it helps to break down the “we” and “they” barriers between grantee and grantor. On the other hand, the presence of funders will change the dynamic of the meeting and may dampen some people’s desire to be fully honest or outspoken.

Of course, every one of these strategies requires effort, advance planning, and persistence. Good relationships take time. If you invest the time up front, your odds of receiving grants – months or years down the road – will improve dramatically.

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Jeff Anderson, of Oregon Community Foundation, says, “Don’t apply for a foundation grant unless you’re truly ready for the scrutiny of outsiders, regarding everything from your office’s appearance to the documentation of your organization’s impact to the accuracy of your accounting.”

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