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The Cardinal Rule


I am putting a pin in the Federal Grant Series this week to talk about something important: the Cardinal Rule: never submit a "cold" proposal to a potential funder. That leads me to the Cardinal Question: So...how do I warm them up?


A couple of years ago, I started tracking a trend among my clients: those clients who were good at creating relationships with funders had a significantly higher grant approval rate than those clients who preferred to sit in their offices and not talk to anyone. No duh...right?


Personally, I'd almost rather have oral surgery than try to develop a relationship with someone I hope to get something from someday. I'm an introvert - schmoozing is not my thing. Thus, I completely understand when a client says they aren't sure the best way to develop a relationship that could lead to a grant.


Here is a list of ways you can break that ice and begin to establish a relationship in advance of seeking a grant or other support:


Don't think about building the relationship as "schmoozing." If you are going, hat in hand, feeling that your position is weak, remember these facts:

  • Charitable foundations are REQUIRED BY LAW to give money for the public good. They would not exist without organizations like yours. You are helping them be better aware of the different opportunities in their community.

  • By the same token, corporate donation programs exist SOLELY for the purpose of donating (money, time, gifts-in-kind, etc.) to worthy causes. Again, they would not exist without you and you are helping them do their job better.

Determine which foundations, corporations and/or government agencies should have a natural interest in your organization. For instance:

  • If you provide health services, you should get to know officials in the health department.

  • If you have several volunteers from a large local corporation, you should get to know their corporate community relations staff.

  • Find out which charitable foundations support work like yours and target them for relationships. Shameless pitch - Sharpshooter’s Point Report provides a fantastic way to identify which grantors support work like yours, along with profiles of each funder and a roadmap for getting started. Click here for more information.

Begin building relationships in a way that makes sense for your organization. Some activities could include:

  • Offering tours of your facilities and programs can be very effective. I have a client who does this on a regular basis - they invite board members, volunteers, funders, potential funders and other stakeholders to tour their programs. They hire a bus to visit various locations and offer a box lunch to participants. Nearly every tour is full.

  • Put them on your mailing list for any newsletters or other publications. Be strategic in what information you mail them. You don't want to send them your annual campaign letter (that would be a "cold" request) or an invitation to your gala. Until you have a relationship, stick to simple information-sharing pieces. Just don't overload them with junk mail!

  • Call a potential funder and ask if you can schedule a meeting with them to share information. Some smaller funders may not be interested in doing this but large foundations with professional staff are almost always interested in learning more about your organization.The more they know about nonprofits like yours in the community, they better they look to their bosses!

Use your board! If you are an executive director or employee, you should not be the only person trying to create these relationships. Your board members should be comfortable making calls and going to meetings as well.


Use your board! When you are looking at the list of trustees of a funder, ask your board members if they know any trustees. If so, ask them to be involved. You can also checked LinkedIn to see where the connections are!


Use your board! Are you seeing a trend? If your board is not comfortable cultivating funders (both grantors and individuals) it is worth investing in some training. Check your state’s center for nonprofits to see if they have any training coming up or check out Boardsource or similar sites.


When you are cultivating future funders, remember that these folks are not naive.

They know you are working to develop a relationship because, sooner or later, you are going to ask for something. If they ask about that, don't pretend you aren't. Maybe you have a project or proposal ready to hand them. If not, tell them you just want to get to know them right now so that, when a perfect funding opportunity comes up, you will be ready to present it to them.


So, when does this relationship become fruitful? Each relationship will be different. As the grant seeker, you will (hopefully) develop a sense of when the time is right.


It won't guarantee that every proposal will be funded. But once you are on the radar for these potential funders, things WILL begin to happen.

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