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If you’re reaching out to foundations in the midst of this pandemic, best practices are not much different. But it’s more important than ever that you stand out from the crowd. Here’s how you can do that.

You’re probably wondering how to adjust your foundation outreach in the midst of the coronavirus. Depending on how you were functioning prior to the pandemic, you may or may not need to make major adjustments.

While much has changed—in the economy, in our day-to-day lives, in our working schedules, and so much else—the fundamentals of fundraising have not changed. Clarity of communication is more important than ever. As grantmaking foundations are scrambling to serve the needs of grantees (and those the grantee organizations serve), foundation staff are busier than usual and inundated with requests.

You need to raise money—perhaps “now more than ever,” as everyone likes to say—and that means you can’t stop contacting donors and potential donors, both individuals and foundations. With more pressure and more demand, small errors are now amplified in this environment.

Here are three tips to avoid small errors and keep your foundation outreach compelling and successful. This advice comes from conversations with foundation representatives and grantmakers.

1. Don’t beat around the bush.

You both know why you are contacting the foundation. They exist to give money away, and you, as a fundraiser, exist to ask for money to advance your organization’s mission.

When you contact foundation representatives, don’t avoid mentioning the money and don’t shy away from naming the amount. You want to provide as much information as possible as quickly as possible. If you are looking for $50,000 to do X, Y, and Z, say that up front so that reviewers can begin to consider and contextualize your inquiry right away. The more they know from the start, the more eager they will be to be in touch with you.

2. Don’t be vague.

State plainly what you plan to do with the grant—precisely what you plan to do. If you are looking for $50,000, what is that money for? What exactly will it achieve?

The trick here is not to replace mission with numbers—you need narrative to engage the prospect donor. But you also need to be clear and precise. To that end, use numbers and specifics, and then provide mission and narrative to contextualize the specifics. The reviewer does not want to know merely that you provide free tutoring services, but that their $50,000 grant will help “X” number of students in “this way.” And then situate those details in a brief story arc.

3. Do your homework.

Not all foundations provide extensive information up front about their mission, program areas, guidelines and so on. But many do, and many welcome phone calls and meetings. If you plan to have a call with a foundation representative, do not betray your lack of research.

Foundation calls should provide additional clarity but not general information (if it’s available otherwise). Your calls should be focused and precise: know exactly what it is that you need to know. It’s not that foundation representatives are self-important and intentionally aloof—but it does not reflect you or your organization well if you don’t prepare for conversations, take initiative, and demonstrate your effort in securing the funding.

Rarely are fundraisers rude or inappropriate when they contact foundations—but they are frequently ineffective in their communication. Program directors at foundations are typically inundated with requests from countless different organizations. If they take their job seriously, they want to give you the attention you and your organization deserve, but for that to happen you need to find a way to stand out. That means being precise and to the point, while also clearly explaining why your organization matters.  

Pulling this off (which is not easy!) is how you can demonstrate your preparation and your commitment to your mission. If you are disciplined, focused, prepared, you demonstrate that you can be trusted to use grant funds well—and the foundation contact can see, through you, your commitment to your mission.

Before the crisis, after the crisis

Maybe you’re wondering why none of this advice has to do with foundation solicitation during the coronavirus pandemic. Those three tips apply just as much three months ago as they do today and as they will … whenever we get beyond this crisis.

There are, of course, minor differences for conversations with foundations today. They might have new program areas or new deadlines or new (or fewer) requirements. But these are the same kinds of things you’ll want to find out in “normal” times, too.

Before you go asking about these (potential) changes over the phone, make sure you do your homework. Sometimes that can be a lot of work—significant research, lots of reading—and that can be time consuming. That may be a big ask, to be sure, but it’s also a big ask when you request a six-figure grant from a foundation. As foundation representatives strive to make themselves accessible and helpful to fundraisers, it’s crucial that fundraisers strive to make those conversations effective.

To get into specifics, finally, there are a few things to look out for with current foundation donors and prospective foundation donors:

  • Are they converting program grants into general-operating grants?
  • Are they supporting emergency funds during the crisis?
  • Are they reducing reporting requirements or extending deadlines?
  • Are they introducing new grant cycles?

Again, be clear, concise, and smart when you reach out to grantmaking foundations. You should also be passionate about your mission, but good preparation is the best way to show your passion and commitment to your mission.


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