The difference between understanding fundraising and actually raising money is like the difference between a parent on Christmas Eve and the same parent on Christmas Day. After the kids have gone to bed, an anxious and sleepy father or mother sits in the living room staring at a thousand pieces of an army fort or a tricycle or a doll house without much confidence that these parts will yield a suitable, Santa-delivered gift in the morning. But by the next day, the child is ecstatic, the tricycle rolls, and the parent reaps the reward of the hard work of execution, even if it took until 4:00.
Fundraising is very similar. You may have all the pieces, but how do you put them together to obtain the prize your agency needs? A few months ago in this space, I outlined some of the preparatory steps a public health agency would take to develop a fundraising program. These covered the spectrum from establishing agency priorities to identifying possible funding sources. In this column, I will describe how you and your agency can execute your plan and begin raising funds from corporations and foundations.
Engage Funders Directly
I taught a session of “Grantwriting 101” to a group of nonprofit professionals once who wanted to learn more about the grantseeking process. I enjoy teaching, and most of the evaluations reflected this with positive comments about the content and the presentation. I have not forgotten one negative evaluation, however, because (1) I am human and (2) it illustrated a key misunderstanding of some novice fundraisers about the grantwriting process. To paraphrase, the evaluation's author asked me, “Why didn't you tell us how to write proposals?”
Raising money from private sources has more to do with the relationship the development officer or agency professional builds with the funder than the proposal itself. That relationship should always be businesslike, and it could span just a single, significant conversation about your project. But the connections you make with potential funders are essential to the success of your fundraising program. Funders are busy and harried, but you must educate them and involve them in your work before they will take an interest in it. That is what I tried to teach in “Grantwriting 101.”
The first step in building a connection is to understand the funder. After you have identified suitable sources of support through contacts and research, you should request the annual report and grantmaking guidelines from each of these organizations. If a corporation or foundation does not publish these documents or offers too little information, use the Internet and funder directories at your local library to determine what kinds of grants the organization makes. Learn as much as you can.
Then you should call the funder on the phone. Find out who the right target is—whether it is a program officer at a foundation or a corporate giving officer at a company—and call him or her to discuss your agency. You may have to be persistent to reach the right person, but this persistence is worth the effort. If you are professional and cordial, most grantmaking staff will be very honest with you about their organization's interest in your project. Writing down questions ahead of time helps keep the conversation moving, and thanking the program officer afterward is essential. If it is feasible, invite the program officer to your agency for an in-depth discussion.
One piece of advice: choose one project to discuss with the contact. When calling a foundation or corporation, a fundraiser will always provide some key background information about his or her agency, but a good one will move quickly to one project selected ahead of time to discuss with the funder. That project will be chosen on the basis of the interests of the grantmaker, not on the need of the agency. If the program officer adamantly rejects this project, always have a second one ready to discuss, assuming this idea also fits the grantmaker's guidelines. When discussing the agency as a whole, stick to superlatives (eg, the highest number of uninsured clients of any city clinic or most vaccine inoculations in the state). The program officer will be more likely to remember these.
Your initial conversation with the grantmaker will probably focus on the project you would like funded, and that is a good place to start. But you should use this interaction to launch other ways of engaging the program officer in your work: an invitation to your next health fair, a request to serve on a task force in his or her area of expertise, or simply a tour of your facilities. These kinds of activities usually occur out of the grant cycle but are imperative in building a long-term relationship.
Create a Successful Proposal
A conversation with a funder will often yield excellent information. Sometimes the best data you will receive is that the grantmaker simply is not interested in your agency or project. Listen carefully to that response. Many fundraisers continue to blindly pursue grantmakers because they feel the funders should like their programs. My advice is to move on to other prospects who actually do like your program.
Other information you can glean includes how to refine your idea to fit better the funder's guidelines, upcoming deadlines, the general grantrange, and whether or not a foundation or corporation will fund a public agency. All this information and more can help you shape your written proposal so that it is more likely to be funded. Using these data, the next step normally is to write a letter of intent (LOI). This is a short (keep it to two pages) letter describing your agency and the project that you send to your contact. A typical outline of an LOI is the following:
- 1st paragraph: Introduction and request
- 2nd–4th paragraphs: Organization background and need for project
- 5th–7th paragraphs: Project description
- 8th paragraph: Impact of the project; make the request again
- 9th paragraph: Close and include phone number
Often, the foundation or corporation will have specific guidelines for the LOI that you should follow to the letter. Funders have established these rules for a purpose, and you would do well to honor them. I suggest that you follow up after submitting the LOI to ensure the grantmaker received it and to answer any questions the program officer might have.
For those organizations without specific guidelines, you have more latitude and should take advantage of it. This does not mean writing more than two pages; it means being more persistent in your follow-up. If the program officer has not visited your agency, call again after submitting the LOI to ensure that it was received and to extend the invitation again. If she or he declines, ask whether you can meet at his or her office to discuss the project in more depth. Ask about next steps. Do not be rude, but know that program officers are accustomed to persistent agency staff and that you should not be shy.
The turnaround time for an LOI is usually 6 weeks or so. Sometimes, less formal grantmakers make a final decision on the basis of the LOI. If you are funded, congratulations! Go celebrate. If your LOI is not funded or if you are not asked to complete a full proposal, be sure to follow up with your contact to find out why you were turned down and how you could improve your proposal next time.
If you are asked to submit a full proposal, you have also succeeded. You have just made it through the first screen a grantmaker uses to eliminate those it does not wish to fund, and you have the opportunity to dazzle the funder. An agency is usually given a significant period of time to complete the full proposal (6–8 weeks), but it is never enough. Organize yourself and your team early and stick to a plan. Key steps include outlining the components of the proposal, drawing up a timeline for completing the proposal, pulling together resources such as budget help and administrative support, and confirming external collaborators. Once these steps are taken, attack the proposal using the following guideline and questions:
- Executive summary: In one page maximum, summarize each of the six areas below.
- Need for program: What need in your client population or community must be met?
- Objectives and impact: What overall impact will you make on this need? What specific objectives do you hope to accomplish with your program?
- Strategies and tasks: How will your program work? How will you achieve your objectives? What specific activities will you initiate to implement the program? How will you achieve the overall impact?
- Personnel: Who will oversee this project? What are their credentials? Who will implement this project? What are their credentials?
- Evaluation: How will you assess the effectiveness of this project? Specifically, what quantitative and qualitative measures will you use to determine if you have been successful?
- Budget: What are the line-by-line costs for this project, including administrative? Who will fund which parts? Has another funder already committed funds to the project? Are you or a donor contributing in-kind costs to the project?
As with the LOI, follow up with a phone call to ensure the funder received your proposal. If site visits are a part of the standard grant review procedures for this particular grantmaker, then wait for that to occur. If not, ask again if the program officer would be willing to come to your agency and see your work up close. Engaging the foundation or corporation on this personal level is essential, so continue to be persistent even after the grant review process is over.
If your proposal is funded, congratulations! Either way, call the program officer after you learn the outcome to find out how you could improve your project or your proposal the next time. This shows how much you care about being a good grantee. Also, regardless of the outcome, you must continue to engage the funder, using the cultivation ideas above and others you design. If you make it to the proposal stage, it is a clear indication that the foundation or corporation is interested in your work, and your agency should continue to involve the funder in it.
This engagement is especially important if you are funded. Make sure the director of your agency sends a thank-you note to the program officer after the grant is received. Send requested reports on time and additional reports on progress if you have good news to share. Continue to invite the program officer, other staff at the grantmaking organization, and even the grantmaker's board members to visit your agency.
The last piece of advice I can share is don't give up. Pleasant persistence is the coin of the realm in fundraising, the essential currency you need to achieve your goals. I have worked with many different nonprofit and public agencies in which I have heard the refrain, “That won't work. We've tried it before.” Sometimes this is true wisdom talking, but many times it is the complaint of a jaded functionary unwilling to try something new. If you keep pushing ahead in your fundraising and follow the steps I have outlined, you can succeed and win the funds your agency needs. And when that happens, Christmas Day will have arrived for you.