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Stewardship Made Easy...

Updated: Oct 6, 2023

Send a few emails, make a couple calls and maybe attend a funder's event or conference then you're golden right? Stewardship made easy! Well...not really. There are some challenges when it comes to stewarding a potential funder for your nonprofit.

But first, let's talk about the word "stewardship". There is an inherent power differential just in the word. The nonprofit has to do the majority of the legwork in the relationship. Funders (very, very rarely) come knocking on your door. Currently, relationships in philanthropy are not equal, and I am not sure if/when that will change. Acknowledging that stewardship will feel like a one-sided endeavor for (hopefully) a short time, can help you better manage your expectations and develop a more effective strategy.

Here are some key barriers to stewarding relationships with funders:

  • Few or no paid staff, program officer availability: There are over 120,000 foundations in the United States, and the vast majority of them have few or no paid staff. For those that do, availability can vary drastically. Program officers might cover broad geographic regions and be on the road a lot, be expected to have knowledge or expertise on a range of subjects, and serve as a liaison to both grantees and boards and trustees (who have varied needs and expectations). Regardless of the reason, not being able to get to know a program officer is one of most frustrating obstacles to effective stewardship.

  • Unclear hierarchies of positional power and lack of clarity around what actually influences the funding decisions: After you click “submit” or hear the quiet thud of a grant proposal landing in the mail, what happens next? Does the program officer rewrite our proposals into two page summaries and present the info to the board who makes the ultimate funding decisions? Does a foundation staff member rub their eyes as they pick up the 16th proposal they’ve read in the last three hours and write copious notes on a worksheet? What information do foundations really need from us to be successful in their work? Unfortunately, I don't have an answer to these questions. The lack of transparency in the process is not only frustrating, but a barrier to effective stewardship.

  • No website, or sparse information: It's estimated that only 10% of foundations in the U.S. have a website. In 2019. Even if a foundation does have a website, it might not have the information you need to be successful, such as staff and board lists, contact information, current and former grantees and instructions for how to submit a proposal.

  • Unhelpful contact information in a 990: In the absence of a website, many of us turn to the tax form 990. However, I have heard stories of how the contact information was incorrect (or even lead to the executive director's teenage daughter's cell phone). Incorrect information on the 990 is yet another challenge in building relationships with funders.

  • Lack of institutional knowledge of historical relationship: Studies have shown that Development Directors at nonprofits only last 18 months (stay tuned for an upcoming blog post on that). Because of the high turnover, vital information gets lost. Unless our predecessor used a database to document major milestones (including the right contact information for funders), the challenge of building relationships becomes more difficult. The last thing ANY grant seeker wants to do is reach out to a funder with a proposal, only to be told that their organization doesn't qualify because x, y or z. And to make matters worse? The funder already told that to your predecessor. (Yes, it HAS happened.)

So how do we overcome these barriers?

There are some simple steps you can take: • If the funder does have a website, be sure to read it thoroughly before contacting them. • If the funder has an online grants management system, please follow the procedures (and do not send them paper materials). • If you are going to be late in submitting your grant report, let the funder know in advance.

Effective fundraising is always grounded in an organization’s mission and strategic plan. Before investing loads of precious time in developing a funder stewardship plan, ask yourself some key questions like: What are my organization’s goals and needs? How does grantseeking meet our goals? What’s our capacity to take on this work? Who will be involved in the work with me: other development staff, leadership, marketing and communications staff?

Even if your organization does everything right, there will be a funder, for some reason you'll never understand, who will not like you. It could have been a poorly-worded email sent by the Development Director from 7 years ago, or it could be that they have their own internal system that they won't share with anyone besides direct recommendations (which they won't tell you how to get). Or it could be a myriad of other things. It makes you go a little crazy, doesn't it?

Well, all of this to say is that if you do your due diligence of reaching out and following up with funders, your odds of stewarding a positive relationship exponentially increase.

(Also, you should still send those emails, make those calls and attend funders' events and conferences.)


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