Communicating with Grant Makers | Tips and Insights
It’s a week before your nonprofit’s grant application is due and you aren’t sure what information one question is really asking for. Do you feel comfortable reaching out to your grantmaker for clarification? With the right tools to present the best version of yourself and your nonprofit’s mission, you can create a valuable relationship with…
It’s a week before your nonprofit’s grant application is due and you aren’t sure what information one question is really asking for. Do you feel comfortable reaching out to your grantmaker for clarification?
With the right tools to present the best version of yourself and your nonprofit’s mission, you can create a valuable relationship with your grantmaker. And asking questions will feel easy and comfortable!
Feeling confident asking questions about application materials, deadlines, and the scope of grants will not only make your nonprofit’s application more competitive but will show your grantmaker that you want to be sure that this relationship is the right fit.
In this post, we’ll look at the best ways to complete research about grantmakers, how to begin communicating with a new grantmaker, what kinds of questions to ask, how to start difficult conversations, and how to maintain a new or existing relationship with a grantmaker.
What is a Grant Maker?
A grantmaker is an organization that makes grants. The most common grantmakers include:
Corporate giving programs
Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) like CARE or Amnesty International
Government agencies like the NEA or the NEH
There are many ways to find grantmakers that might work for your nonprofit. Once you have a good list of potential funders, it’s time to do the research to make sure they’re truly a good fit.
1. Do Your Research
Think of this like you’re preparing for a job interview. You wouldn’t go into the interview without researching the company, would you? This may seem obvious, but knowing important information about a grantmaker before contacting them shows that you value their time and are interested in them. It also allows you to feel confident that the mission of your nonprofit aligns with its goals.
Beyond this, understanding the scope of their giving also helps you establish a good fit. Do they primarily fund large, years-long projects and your nonprofit is looking for funding for a one-time event? Do they only fund capital projects and you wish to work on something on a national scale?
Establishing this before connecting with a grantmaker saves you both time, effort, and the embarrassment of reaching out somewhere that is a bad fit.
In some cases, your nonprofit’s reputation could be at stake if you choose to work with a funder who doesn’t align with your mission. This is why doing your research is such a vital step of communicating — before communicating even occurs.
You can use a variety of resources to conduct this research, such as:
Foundation Directory Online. This is a service you can use to learn about over 100,00 foundations in the United States. You can search for specific funders by name or find funders in your giving range.
The web. Most agencies and NGOs have websites detailing their mission and what kinds of projects or organizations they’re hoping to fund. Finding websites for foundations is a bit harder — many don’t have active or current websites.
Your board members. Review the boards of your chosen grantmakers and ask your board members if there’s anyone they know.
Your own personal and social networks! Don’t forget to think about your colleagues in the field and who they might know.
Annual reports either published by the grantmaker or by organizations that have received grants from them. This will help clarify what kinds of projects they fund.
News and other nonprofit media like local nonprofit council updates, newsletters, and more. See what’s happening both locally and nationally.
Once you know you have the right grantmaker for your nonprofit, it’s time to reach out.
2. Connect with a Grant Maker
Approaching this communication can feel tricky, but with a few tips, you can easily begin building a lasting relationship.
Find the right person to talk to. Is there a specific officer for a program you’re interested in? Or is this a small foundation where it would be appropriate to reach out to the founder?
Choose your communication. Would it make sense to invite your contact to lunch, where you could show them more about your project or organization? Or, if they’re out of state, would a phone call make more sense? Note that it’s always important to follow any contact instructions given on the grant maker’s website or other communications.
Prepare for your meeting. Similar to preparing for a job interview, you want to come ready with background information about your nonprofit and a prepared list of questions (see #4). You also want to make it clear that you’ve done your research!
Be comfortable asking questions. This is your opportunity to be sure the grantmaker is open to funding projects or organizations like yours. During your communications, they might even encourage you to apply or suggest another opportunity! Take a look at some example questions in the next section.
Don’t get discouraged. Remember that whether this grantmaker funds you right now or not, they can still be a valuable contact. They might have more funding opportunities in the future or might have other grantmakers in their network.
Stay in touch! Regardless of if you receive a grant or not, add your contact (and any other relevant staff or officers) to your email list. With their consent, of course! This allows you to casually keep them up-to-date with your organization’s activities.
You might be wondering what kinds of questions are appropriate to ask during meetings with grantmakers. It can be tricky to find the right way to get the information you need, but it’s always a good strategy to have polite, well-thought-out questions ready.
Here is a list of sample questions that will help you get valuable information from potential grantmakers.
1. Beyond those that simply align with your funding goals, what kinds of projects are you most interested in funding?
You can follow up by asking about your nonprofit’s specific project type like a capital project, a service project, an exhibit, etc.
2. What are the most common reasons why you or your organization deny grants?
3. I know you’ve funded projects like ours in the past, but do you believe our project is a good fit for your grant?
If you did your research, you should have a pretty good idea of what the answer to this question will be. But sometimes grantmakers have a different idea of what they’d like to fund in the future—you never know, and it doesn’t hurt to be certain.
Plus, this gives you a chance to show off your research and let your contact know you’re familiar with their history!
4. Are there any application errors your review team notices again and again?
As a follow up to #3:
5. What steps can I take to be sure my nonprofit avoid those errors on our application?
This could be an easy fix like having the correct financial reporting for a certain year, or it could be something more complicated about the scope of a project description. Whatever the case, you’re speaking with someone who knows all about what they’re looking for. Take advantage of their knowledge while coming off as concerned, thorough, and interested.
If you have more questions during the course of your conversation with your grantmaker, just ask! Remember that as long as you’re demonstrating that you are a polite person to work with and someone who has done the appropriate background research, you should feel comfortable and confident asking questions.
But what about more difficult conversations? With the right mindset, you should feel just as confident tackling those tricky conversations too.
4. Have the Difficult Conversations
It might seem frightening to be open with a grantmaker about your needs, concerns, and hopes. Although it can feel awkward at first, navigating these difficult conversations can be the key to building an important relationship.
Here are some examples of uncomfortable conversations that can be tricky to manage. With the right approach, you can easily discuss these with your grantmaker.
Always approach problems openly and politely. For example, are you concerned your nonprofit won’t be able to fulfill a part of the project included in your grant proposal?
Discuss this with your contact to find a solution that works for both parties. Your grantmaker will trust you more for communicating this issue upfront than for trying to cover it up.
If you aren’t sure what data or information they would like to see in a report or follow-up, ask for examples from previous grantees. This isn’t something you’re supposed to just know. Use whatever resources they’ll give you in order to make them happy!
If there’s anything unclear on the application, reach out to your contact. The key here is to reach out in a timely manner—not two hours before the application is due. Working on your grant application materials well ahead of time will ensure you have room to ask questions and submit the best materials you can!
If your grant application is denied, don’t be afraid to ask your contact for a meeting to discuss what you might improve on next time. Always be sure to ask politely and to prioritize their scheduling needs.
Don’t assume right away that your project simply wasn’t a good fit. They might have had another applicant with a slightly more timely project, or maybe they might have had less funding available than they originally budgeted for. There are many reasons why your nonprofit’s grant might have been denied, and asking for more information will only benefit future applications.
Keep in mind that these conversations can always be tricky no matter how delicately you approach them. A good tip is to enter a conversation like this with the goal that both parties should leave satisfied.
In other words, you need your issue resolved—and you should get it resolved—but you should also try to understand the needs and concerns of the grantmaker. After all, they’re trying to do just as much good in the world as you and your nonprofit.
Pro tip: Timing is critical for these conversations to go smoothly. Remember that addressing any problems or concerns as they arise will always work out better in the long run. And it will save you and your team a ton of unneeded stress.
5. Maintain Your Relationship with a Grant Maker
Along with adding a grantmaker to your email list, remember to consider other ways of communicating with them to maintain a good relationship.
If you do receive a grant, be sure to follow any reporting guidelines required by the grantmaker. Beyond any formal reports, you can always go above and beyond to show the grantmaker how their funds helped make a difference — in your organization, and for whoever your organization serves.
Get creative with this! Here are some exciting ways to let a grantmaker know you really appreciate them:
A handwritten thank-you note. It sounds old-fashioned, but it’s still around for a reason!
Record a video thanking your grantmaker and showcasing something they helped fund—new equipment, a new community project, etc. At the performing arts nonprofit I worked with, we once put together a kind of mini-show for one of our grantmakers to show them how appreciative we were. Staff members performed their best, all in the hopes of properly thanking our grantmaker!
Thank them for any materials you distribute that have to do with your project like signage at events, programs, informative flyers, etc.
Invite them to a donor appreciation event like a show, a nice dinner, or even a night out where you can remind them all the good they’ve done for your organization.
It’s the little things that make maintaining relationships fun for both you and your grantmaker.
6. Communication is Key
“Communication works for those who work at it.” – John Powell
In the end, remember that the key to any good relationship is polite, open communication. You want your grantmaker to feel confident that your nonprofit is not only deserving of their grant, but a trustworthy member of the nonprofit community.
Keeping relationships like these strong can lead to new opportunities and collaborations down the line. Even if a grantmaker is unable to fund your nonprofit at the moment, they might have expanded funding opportunities later or they might hear about a grant that your nonprofit is perfect for.
Always remember to be confident but humble when communicating. You know your nonprofit is worth it — now it’s time to show your grantmaker!
You’re on your way to effectively communicate with grantmakers! Using these tips as you approach new or existing grantmakers will ensure you have an easy and productive conversation.
Doing your research allows you to feel like you know a little bit about the grantmaker, and about how your nonprofit aligns with their goals before you even reach out.
Beyond this initial research, you have to go about connecting the right way, with the right contact, and in the right circumstances. This will allow you to feel comfortable that you’ve done your part to make a good connection.
This is when real communication occurs. Asking important questions opens up a dialogue between you and the grantmaker, which allows you to broach difficult conversations when (and if!) they come up. This helps develop a relationship.
And of course, like all relationships, you have to work to maintain it. Keeping a grantmaker in the loop, regardless of if they’ve funded you yet or not, shows that you care about this being a good fit. You want them to appreciate your work the same way you appreciate theirs!
Check out the rest of our nonprofit blog for more grant maker tips and tricks.