On Becoming a Leader
July 12, 2017

How to Open Doors at Foundations

On Becoming a Leader is an advice column in which Allison Fine, an author, consultant, and expert on nonprofit management, answers your questions about nonprofit careers and leadership. Have a question? Ask Allison.

I’m a philanthropy novice doing research for a nonprofit that is exploring potential new sources of funding. I feel like I’m looking at a gigantic mosaic mural from two inches away and all I can see are individual tiles. How can people like me quickly get a grasp on what they need to know (besides reading The Chronicle of Philanthropy, of course!)?

Jim Bettinger
Palo Alto, CA

Welcome aboard, Jim!

Philanthropy is a unique field that can be bewildering to newcomers. Actually, it can be bewildering to oldcomers, too! Part of the problem is that raising grant money seems so simple and straightforward: there are a large number of institutions with the sole purpose of giving money to causes like yours — exactly like yours, in fact. All you have to do is ask for it and a check will be sent your way. However, what philanthropy looks like from the outside and how it operates on the inside are entirely different.

I imagine that other people have given you advice such as go to the Foundation Center (which has awesome new data tools, by the way) and read The Chronicle. (Thanks for doing that!)

But that’s not enough. To open doors at foundations, you need to understand why they are so hard to break into.

The first thing is that foundations are entirely idiosyncratic entities. Unlike other institutions, they don’t have to make money or create products or serve customers. They can fund, or not fund, almost any effort they want. They can talk to grant seekers, or not. This makes them entirely unpredictable and often opaque organizations.

Second, foundations are overwhelmed with grant requests from nonprofit organizations. There are more nonprofit groups than ever before, which means that there is a huge mismatch between the numbers of grant seekers and the numbers of grant givers.

Put these two pieces together: foundations that are under no pressure to behave in any certain way but that are overwhelmed with requests for funding, and you can see why they so often feel like fortresses with the drawbridge pulled up.

Just one more caveat, Jim, before I outline a few steps to help get you started. It is important to determine whether foundation funding is really your best path forward. Grants from private foundations are actually only a slice of the funding pie. The much bigger slice comes from individual giving. Maybe special events or endowments and individual donations are better ways for you to raise money. It is important to kick all of the fundraising tires before going down this pathway.

Assuming you’re all in for raising money from foundations, here are some steps to get started:

Lead through relationships. I have written before in this column about the key leadership attribute of focusing on relationships rather than just transactions. Working with foundations is a prime example of the need to treat foundation staff as real people, not ATM machines. They are not there to spit out checks for you. By focusing on the long, slow process of relationship building you will, I hope, be able to work with foundation staff members over a long period of time at their current job and wherever they end up in the future.

Be empathetic. Good relationships begin with empathy. It is particularly important in philanthropy to focus on being empathetic with foundation staff people who are inundated with requests for funding that they cannot approve. It is a job that generally requires staff to say no nine out of 10 times to worthy groups. It is, therefore, really important to put yourself in a program officer’s shoes and think about what kind of conversation you would want to have with someone you just met who is likely to ask you for funding that you can’t approve. Learn about who they are, why they do the work they do, how they make decisions, where they came from, what gives them energy in their jobs. The more you treat them like real people with real pressures and lives, Jim, the more they will reciprocate and, I hope, become a supporter at some point.

Ask for input and advice. There is a fine line between asking grant makers for input and twisting yourself into a pretzel to get their money. However, it is important to make yourself and your effort open to input and advice. It doesn’t mean that you have to agree with it or follow through on it. One mistake I’ve seen too many nonprofit organizations make is assuming that they are powerless to educate grant makers. If you intend to build a relationship with a foundation over time, it is important to make the effort to educate that organization about your issue and effort. Of course, not every grant maker is open to this kind of conversation, but I hope you will keep trying and find some that are.

Stay in conversation with grant makers. Whether the answer to your funding request is yes or no, I urge you to continue talking with grant makers. Is there information about your cause or research that you could forward to the program officer? Is there someone of interest you could introduce her to? (And please don’t fall into the trap of assuming that introducing people to one another diminishes your influence.)

By focusing on these steps, Jim, you will build strong relationships with foundation staffers that will help you build a strong base of supporters over time. Remember, you aren’t just trying to raise money, you are trying to create a network of people who support and contribute to your work. Everyone you meet as you explore funding is a potential participant in your network. Make sure to thank everyone (and thank and thank!) and keep people updated on your progress. Your progress includes your steps forward. It also includes reflections on the real challenges that you face because, ultimately, raising money from foundations requires real people on the inside being attracted to and moved by real people on the outside.