Sunday, April 05, 2009

What Does A Nonprofit Do When A Foundation Only Accepts Grant Applications By Invitation? I'll Tell You...

Today, grant donors such as foundations (community, public, and private) are equally effected by our slowed economy. As such, they are attempting different survival tactics designed to either keep their foundation operating or to be able to pay debts after it folds. Some foundations have become programs of other foundations. Other foundations have merged, and still others closed.

One tactic that is unfortunately more prevalent right now among foundations (perhaps more than ever before) is foundations that use to accept funding inquiries from any nonprofit organization, during any giving cycle, are now accepting letters of inquiry or grant applications only from those nonprofits that they have either given grants to, before, or from nonprofits that they have recently invited to apply for a grant. In other words, right now, it is unfortunately common for foundations to only allow those nonprofits who they know to apply for their grant. This is a difficult turn of events for nonprofits that these foundations are not yet aware of, and also for start up nonprofits. It would seem to be a closed door in the way of raising grant money.

For nonprofits who are new to grant writing this is a tough economy to begin grant writing (and organizations new to grant writing may be start up nonprofits, in age, but can also include organizations of any age - not all well established nonprofits conduct grant writing, or have ever tried it). This apparent closed door, though, is not impossible to get beyond.

Keep in mind that foundations are in the 'business' of donating grants because they are passionate about the issue or cause that they support, they are interested in being a part of the solution and want to partner with strong nonprofits who are successful, and foundations have resources such that they are in the unique position to be able to provide funding (grants). Foundations are staffed with volunteers, founders, and employees who are not simply sitting 'on high' doling out funds. These foundations are sources of resources, research, expertise, and as such, are staffed by people very knowledgeable not just about the issue or cause that they work for, but are usually professionals in the issue/cause's professional field, connected in the professional field, and aware of which institutions, professionals, professional media, nonprofit organizations, and researchers who are players in the profession, outside of their foundation. Donors, today, are not usually passive check writers; rather they are often savvy about the cause they support and the professional field surrounding it. They have to be this diligent, even more so now, because there is such an exceptional demand for grants, today.

Donors have really modernized into a position of 'investor' (grant donors, included), today. As such, donors want to connect with real solution providers to real current problems, in our communities today. They want to give, and will donate, but only to those nonprofits who are worthy of their donation (or investment). How do they determine who is "worthy"?

Every foundation is different from the next one, and each operates (beyond legal requirements) in their own way. In general, though, like all other kinds of donors - foundations want to donate grants to nonprofits who are working on a real issue, that currently exists, by providing successful solutions that are achieving, and who operate according to professional best practices. A nonprofit that operates professionally, ethically, continually fundraises well, and that succeeds at the work of its mission statement is obviously not as risky an investment as a nonprofit that maybe fails at one or another of these attributes. Put another way, which nonprofit would you rather give a grant to? You'd want to give a grant to the nonprofit who you know is honest, run well, efficient, successful, staffed with experts, isn't going to fade away in a year, and is actually working hard on the issue it serves.

But, if after prospecting for potential grant donors your organization finds that there are a lot of foundations that you would apply to but now seem beyond your reach because they do not accept applications from just any nonprofit, you may ask how does a nonprofit apply for a grant from a foundation that is not accepting grant applications from just any nonprofit? There are several things that a nonprofit can do because all nonprofits want to expand the potential pool of donors available to them, not accept restrictions to that pool, if it can. And yes, you can.

__ Be certain that your nonprofit is regularly informing professionals, other institutions, and professional media in your organization's professional field about your nonprofit, its work, and its goals. Regularly share your organization's successes, good news, and achievements not just in your geographic community (the general public), but also with your nonprofit's professional field's colleagues. Get press releases out to both communities. Foundations' staff and volunteers network in their professional fields (like any other professionals). If local foundations haven't heard of your organization, they may ask their and your colleagues if they have, or if their colleagues know of a new or previously unknown nonprofit doing important work . If they haven't heard of your agency, either, your organization is missing on many important professional radars. These potential donors can't miss hearing about your group. Don't let this happen. To reach seemingly unreachable potential donors (of all kinds):

__ Ask your organization's board, volunteers, and staff if they have any colleagues, friends, or family working for the foundations that your agency is interested. Whether or not these foundation are restricting grant applications, you should always ask your agency if anyone knows anyone at the foundation you're considering applying to. Personal connections are invaluable. If you locate a person who works for your nonprofit that has a relationship with someone working for the foundation you're applying to, ask them to contact their contact at the foundation (preferably face to face, or over the phone), and tell them to simply share that your organization is about to apply for a grant from them, what the application will request and for what project, and make sure that the connection is made aware of your organization's name, what it does, and recent successes. There shouldn't be any pressure applied, or sales tactics used. Making sure that the connection with the potential donor knows why your organization is an excellent investment for their grant is a great initial contact conversation. Your organization stands on its own two feet, with any potential donor, when people are made aware of the unique need in the community that it serves. its ability, expertise, and achievements.

__ Market your organization from the standpoint that there is no other organization with your nonprofit's unique attributes, strengths, abilities, and successes in the cause that it works towards. Conduct regular proactive positive public relations. Make it clear that a solution can be found and delivered. Never bang potential donors or volunteers over the head with fear or painful messages to 'brutalize' them into donating or volunteering with your agency. These are emotional marketing tools, that do pack a wallop (and often we hear that the best marketing is touching people emotionally), but these emotions, in particular, do not engender a sense of ability, potential for success, or hope about your organization. These are much more effective emotions to market through because they encourage buy-in to your nonprofit, instead of leaving potential donors and volunteers, in your community, feeling hopeless, fear, or despair about the cause and any nonprofit's ability to provide a real solution for it.

__ Do not solicit any foundation by placing them onto your nonprofit's mailing list. You're more likely to tick the staff off than introduce your organization through this regular 'junk mail' barrage because they already receive a lot of mail that has to be processed. They don't need more mail. They'll just 'round file' it. Also, if a foundation only accepts grant application by invitation, do not send a letter of inquiry or grant proposal.

__ To reach the seemingly unreachable potential grant donor, call their office and ask how they learn about nonprofits that they invite to apply for grants. Depending on what the foundation's representative says, either follow through with how they prefer to be made aware of nonprofits; or do not send them anything.

__ Your agency's leadership needs to be talking with friends, family, and colleagues about your organization always. Also, your nonprofit's leadership needs to get out of the office, regularly, to network in the community. Why? Another way to reach the seemingly unreachable potential grant donor is to find out where the foundation is active in the community (e.g. annual professional conferences, local United Way meetings, local professional nonprofit affiliation's meetings, etc.), when they will be at these public gatherings, and make sure that either your agency's executive director or a board member will be there, too. Do not stock the foundation's representative(s), don't thrust a grant application into their hands, understand that many nonprofits are eager to get the foundation's staff and volunteers' attention, and imagine a professional, comfortable, unassuming way to connect with them. At any of these meetings' social mixers, your executive director or board member may simply go up, introduce themselves and your nonprofit, share its recent work and successes, and give them a card. Your nonprofit's leadership should then politely move on, perhaps follow up with an e-mail or phone call a week later, and then leave the contact alone. Again, do not stalk them. Just make sure that local donors of all kinds hear your leadership's elevator speech about your nonprofit, its work/successes, and why they think the organization is much needed. This foundation has now heard of your nonprofit! Networking of this kind, is very effective, when conducted often and perhaps tied in with current organizational marketing or public relations. Let the word about your nonprofit spread, but keep getting the word out.

__ Public Relations and Marketing do not just reach foundation staffs' ears. It reaches the entire community. Imagine the potential donors (of all kinds), potential future board members, potential volunteers, and potential community partners or collaborators this outreach reaches. It is ultimately probably going to recoup its cost but also going to be invaluable.

Don't get discouraged when you perceive a 'shut door' as you work on fundraising. Find, instead, confidence in your organization's credentials, potential, successes, and need in the community. Leave anyone who learns about your organization with a strong positive impression. Find the professional, thoughtful, non-aggressive, reasonably persistent, respectful way to get your organization's name, work, and successes in front of everyone in your agency's community. You'll reach the seemingly unreachable.

1 comment:

Bernard said...

Thank you so much for posting this. I am researching this topic for business planning and this is very helpful and informative.