Grantmaking foundations are a phenomenal force in our country’s philanthropic economy. In 2012, private foundations gave away more than $47 billion (fully 15% of charitable contributions), according to Giving USA 2013. This is an increase over the prior year. Nonprofits are eager to tap into this funding stream—it’s an entire watershed.
Yet sometimes, in the course of securing a grant, a development officer can feel as though the rules and protocols set by the foundation just aren’t fair. Or they seem to be at odds with your organization’s strategic development plan. How do you know when to keep the ball in play—and whether you’re even playing on the same court?
Let’s say you’re a performing arts organization and you apply to a foundation for seed money to build audiences. The foundation counters with a challenge grant: You must complete a match using only lower-level donors and ticket buyers. Do you take the offer?
Or you’re renovating a cultural space and a local foundation offers a challenge grant, but you cannot count other foundation grants toward the 1:1 match. Only gifts from individuals and corporations can be applied. Do you accept?
Or you have researched a foundation’s guidelines and submitted a well-documented proposal that seems like a perfect fit, but it is rejected outright because the foundation has a twist to its guidelines that isn’t reflected in their online materials. How do you avoid feeling betrayed?
There is one answer to all these questions: communicate.
Cultivating a relationship with a program officer continues to be just as meaningful as the contacts you nurture with individual donors. Begin at the beginning: reach out and engage foundation staff before you submit your proposal. Hearing from you keeps them informed about needs in the community. Their experience and advice in the proposal planning stage can be invaluable, especially if they’re willing to provide clarity about their guidelines. It’s in their best interest to fund successful organizations and share the limelight with you.
When the foundation has questions after you’ve submitted the proposal, respond quickly. Some of the best conversations happen when you are asked to provide extra information that clarifies something in your request. It’s a chance to strengthen your case and add another dimension to your relationship.
When an award is offered, and it’s not quite what you expected, ask whether you can negotiate terms. Maybe your recent fundraising results indicate that you could meet a 3:1 match within a certain time frame, but you’d like more time to complete a 4:1 match. It’s okay to ask: How have other organizations met this goal? What kind of support can the funder offer—such as workshops, guidance—to insure your success?
Follow up at the end of the decision process. If the proposal was rejected, ask for a conversation so that you can improve your next submission. If the proposal was accepted, do more than send a round of thanks and submit the required reports. Update the program officer with interim milestones you achieve.
And if the foundation rejects your proposal, citing an interpretation of their guidelines that wasn’t made public—well, that’s their prerogative. As private entities, foundations aren’t required to reveal any more about their operations than a Form 990 contains. But that doesn’t necessarily constitute best practice. A recent report by the Center for Effective Philanthropy, Foundation Transparency: What Nonprofits Want, confirms that nonprofit leaders believe “the foundations that are more transparent are more helpful to their organization’s ability to work effectively, easier to develop good relationships with, and more credible.”
So speak up, be heard and listen well. Foundations should constitute a healthy part of your diverse funding mix. With open and honest communication on both sides, you can keep that playing field level for all.