The Foundation Screening List

Screen Shot 2015-02-13 at 11.24.46 AMI want to talk briefly about an important but underutilized development tool: the foundation screening list.  When we are first beginning our development careers everything we learn about foundations implies that they are pure meritocracies.  Have a good organization with a good project, write a good proposal and you’ll have as good a shot at getting funding as anyone else.  And to some extent this is true.  If you aren’t a well run organization and you don’t have a good project you probably won’t get funding.  But the reality is that you will be competing against many other meritorious organizations and not everyone one will get funded.  So, how do you stand out from the crowd?

The reality is the business of successful foundation funding is very much a “who you know” business.  I’m not saying that there is any sort of cronyism involved.  But I am saying that your ideas are more likely to be heard if you know the decision makers involved and have had a chance to talk over your work in detail.  I am saying that knowing trustees counts for a lot more than knowing program officers.  And I am saying that trustees and program officers knowing you and believing in your leadership and your ability to deliver on the promises of your proposal is critical.

So, a really valuable exercise for any organization is to know who you know on foundation boards and staffs.  How do we find this out?  The foundation screening list.

The foundation screening list is a packet of foundations (up to 25) likely to fund your organization based on their stated mission and its relevance to yours.  Each foundation gets it own page and on each page, triple or quadruple spaced, you’ll list every trustee and program officer.  If it is a large foundation then just list the relevant program officer.  You can see a sample layout here.

Now, what do we do with foundation screening list once we have one?  Sit down with your staff, your board and other volunteers, friends and anyone else willing to listen to you.  Ask them to flip through the list and see if they know anyone.  Ask them to write in the margins who they know and any important information about them.  Ask them if there is any foundation or anyone not on the list that they would be willing to contact.

Ask them if they’d be willing to help set up a meeting with anyone they know.

Over time you should get a pretty good catalog of who knows who and hopefully have people setting up meetings on your behalf.  Record everything in your database.

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.