Everything You Know About Foundation Fundraising Is Wrong

Everything you know about foundation fundraising is wrong.  Well, maybe not everything.  But possibly quite a lot.  Too often we view Picture 3foundation funding as largely an exercise in research and proposal writing when I would argue that these are the two areas that have the least to do with successful foundation work.  Here are a few myths and misunderstandings that that I’d like to debunk.

Myth #1: Guidelines are set in stone

The way we are all taught to approach foundation fundraising is that guidelines are paramount and are rarely, if ever, violated.  In reality, the opposite is often true.  I know foundations that swear they only give to organizations with national reach, but give regularly to grassroots efforts.  I know foundations who say they never give to endowments or to capital campaigns but repeatedly give to both.

Just like you and your organization, foundations have a vision of the world they are trying to achieve.  Their guidelines reflect their best thinking on how to achieve their vision.  But what is most important to them is their vision, not their guidelines.  If you can get in front of them explain how your vision and your programs may be an equally or even more effective way of achieving their aims, there is a good chance they’ll listen to you.  And if they say “our guidelines really are our guidelines” they will often direct you towards a foundation that more closely reflects your priorities.  You should acknowledge guidelines but not be a slave to them.

Myth 2:  Foundation fundraising equals grant writing

I’m always surprised how many organizations, if they can only hire one foundation position, will opt for a grant writer over a front-line development officer.  Make no mistake, a well-written proposal that can stand on its own is an important part of fundraising.  But foundation work is no different than any other kind of development work.  All of the hard work comes before the ask or, in this case, the proposal.  We should be focused conveying our work through engagement with our programs, engagement with our mission staff, engagement with our Executive Director, etc.  A foundation needs to know you can do everything you are promising.  And that means they need to know your organization and the people in it.  If it’s just a pretty piece of writing it’s likely to be overlooked.  Not because it wasn’t compelling but because there is no way to know if what you are saying to true.  People believe their own experiences not necessarily what you or I tell them in a proposal.  Be sure to give them those positive experiences and the proposal almost becomes a formality.

Myth #3:  Foundation fundraising is a meritocracy

If we have a worthy program that best achieves our own aims and that of the foundation we’ll get the grant, right?  Well, no.  Or at least, maybe.  I’m not accusing foundations of anything nefarious.  What I am saying however is that merit is necessary but insufficient.  There are many, many, many nonprofits doing meritorious work.  Given that, which nonprofit is most likely to get a grant?  The organization that is a known quantity is.  The organization that knows three trustees is more likely to get the grant then the one who doesn’t.  Not because of croneyism but because each of those trustees votes and they can say to themselves “Hey, I know the Executive Director that applied.  I know that she does what she says she will do.  I know that she will report back to us.  I know she will spend the money the way she said she would.  These other applicants, they have some great ideas but I don’t know them well enough so I don’t know if they’ll come through.”

Foundation fundraising is a “who you know” kind of business.  If you can, know trustees.  Failing that, know program officers and other program staff.  Bottom line:  know as many of the decision makers as you can.

These are just three myths but there are others and perhaps in a subsequent post I’ll go through them.  My parting advice is this: when it comes to foundations, don’t see yourself as an applicant, and especially not as a supplicant.  See yourself as a partner with foundations in trying to make the world a better place.  Partnership implies equality and proactivity.  Don’t be passive about your foundation fundraising; get in there and engage with them.

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