How to Approach and Build Grant Funder Relationships in 2022

Any grant seeker can research details about a foundation, their giving opportunity, and application guidelines. But an efficient grant seeker knows that to come out ahead in the competitive world of grant seeking, more is required.

In this article, we will discuss the considerable value funder relationships can have for your grant-seeking endeavors and how you can start building relationships with funders that will help you secure more funds for your organization.

Not only will we cover what grant funders are looking for but also how you can cultivate meaningful relationships with funders that will have long-lasting impacts on your grant-seeking work.

Why Should You Invest in Grant Funder Relationships?

Investing in Grant Funder Relationships

According to Giving USA, charitable giving in the U.S. reached a record high in 2020, with over $471 billion in donated funds to non-profit organizations. Foundations played a significant role in this trend, as they saw an increase in giving by 17%, making up an estimated $88.5 billion in contributions. It is prime time for your non-profit to tap into these funds, but it's a competitive market. With over 1.6 million non-profits registered in the United States, you must work to ensure that your organization stands out from the crowd.

Funders are much more likely to give to your organization if they understand and empathize with your cause and can see the impact that your work has on the community. As the saying goes, “people give money to people''. This is why nonprofits must build relationships with grant funders that are both personable and purposeful.

Building relationships with funders allows you to better understand their giving priorities, ensure that your project is a good fit, and ask questions to better frame and inform your proposal. Sometimes the foundation's website doesn't answer all of your questions, the proposal directions are ambiguous, or the average funding request isn't given, but reaching out to funders or program directors directly allows you to ask important questions before you begin the application process.

Connecting with funders on a personal level allows you to advocate for your cause person-to-person. In doing so, you'll be able to show your passion for the work and get a better grasp of their decision-making process, giving your organization a leg up when applying for funds.

Back to the Basics: What Makes for Meaningful Relationships?

What Makes for Meaningful Relationships

Relationships are crucial for the sustainability of non-profit organizations. Your relationship with potential funders can be seen as a courtship of sorts, where you try to establish a meaningful partnership over shared values that is likely to further both parties' vision for the future.

So, when courting foundations to establish relationships that could blossom into potential funding, we can look to the Gottman methodologies that have been proven to help couples strengthen and maintain healthy relationships. The creators, Doctors John and Julie Gottman, developed nine components of healthy relationships known as The Sound Relationship House Theory. By following the components of this theory, which are outlined below, we can learn how to maintain more meaningful relationships with funders.

1. Building Love Maps

To increase your chances of securing funding, your organization's programs and financial needs must match a funder's interests and resources. When building your relationship with a potential funder, you should emphasize these shared values to make funders excited about your proposed program.

2. Share Fondness and Admiration

In order for any viable partnership to thrive, it is crucial that both sides feel valued and respected. This is where those pre-application conversations can be pivotal in building a positive relationship with potential funders.

When you make your introductory call to a potential funder your primary goal should be to communicate your program idea and get answers to your questions. But you also want to make a positive and professional impression. 

Gottman Institute

After properly introducing yourself and your organization, make sure to ask intelligent questions about the funder’s organization and listen carefully to be able to respond meaningfully. 

3. Turn Towards Instead of Away

The Gottmans regularly emphasize the importance of being receptive to a partner’s request for further connection — this must not be forgotten when approaching potential funders.

The pre-application is just the first phase of your relationship with a funder. After your application is submitted, some funders will follow up with additional questions or request further documentation. And if you are awarded a grant, they will likely request regular updates and be interested in the progress of your work.

Take advantage of these requests to highlight your organization’s eligibility and progress.

4. The Positive Perspective

Maintain a positive approach when addressing obstacles, challenges, or any miscommunication with funders. At the end of the day, both parties are interested in the shared values that brought them together. 

5. Manage Conflict

You may very well find yourself in conflict with your funders. Often, these conflicts are over different expectations or program priorities that arise after the funds have been awarded. Understand that conflict within relationships is normal and can even strengthen a bond, so take each dispute as they come with an optimistic outlook handy.

6. Make Life Dreams Come True

While it is important to speak highly of your program’s goals to funders, having the means to bring them to fruition after receiving funding is just as, if not more, vital. 

Make sure that your program design is realistic and the proposed goals are attainable. If you are awarded, what you proposed in your application becomes a kind of contract that you will be expected to uphold. To maintain a good relationship with the funder and a good reputation in the community, make sure that you can follow through on your promises. 

7. Create Shared Meaning

When connecting with funders, be honest about your organization’s needs, concerns, values, and aspirations for the funds requested. This can help to create an atmosphere that encourages both parties to address potential challenges and achieve shared goals. 

8 & 9. Trust & Commitment

Ultimately, when you build relationships with grant funders you must establish a foundation built on trust and commitment. Proving to the funder your value as an organization, the work you can do with their funds and your dedication to shared priorities will bring you much closer to establishing a mutually beneficial partnership and securing funds for your organization.

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How to Build Stronger Grant Funder Relationships: 5 Steps to Follow

Building Stronger Grant Funder Relationships

Before you begin cultivating meaningful relationships with funders, you must start by reviewing what that exactly entails. You want your relationships with funders to be significant, sustainable, and impactful. These Five Steps will help you build relationships with grant funders beyond the application process and help lead to more sustainable funding for your organization.

Step 1: Research Your Potential Funder

When you make your initial call to a potential funder, you want to be mindful of their time and ask meaningful questions that can't be found by checking out their website. You want to do your best to understand what grant funders are looking for. 

Consider:

  • What are their giving priorities, their history, and their hopes for the future? 
  • Beyond finding details about the funding opportunity and regulation, you should also look into the funder's giving history:
    - What's the average size of their grants
    - Who and where do they typically fund?
    - What have the giving trends been in the last three years?

If your potential funder is a tax-exempt non-profit, you may want to find their Form 990 or 990-PF annual returns. Commonly known as "990s," these publically available forms include helpful information such as the organization's fair market value of assets, yearly contributions, board members, and grants. 

Sites like ProPublica have free search tools to access 990s. You can also use Instrumentl for more detailed visualizations of historical 990 reports.

It is also helpful to review an organization's Board of Directors and executive team to better understand their leadership and those involved in the decision-making process. Look internally at the connections your staff, board members, and volunteers may have, also. Maybe someone can give you an introduction!

Step 2: Practice Active Listening

Listening is a critical skill when you begin to build relationships with grant funders. You must, of course, have a concise and informed elevator speech to present to funders about your organization — its mission and history, and what you hope to accomplish with their funds, etc. But after this, you ought to give them appropriate time to discuss their priorities, projects, and processes.

If the funder does not feel your project is a good fit for their priorities, resist arguing with them or trying to prove that it does. If you believe that it may be a case of misunderstanding, ask clarifying questions instead and do your best to explain your project in other practical ways. However, if this does not work or if your two organizations are not compatible, then thank them for their time, ask if they are aware of other funders who might be interested, and cleanly move on.

Step 3: Be Responsive 

Working for or operating a non-profit is a lot of work. There's almost always a ton to do and competing priorities vying for your attention. That being said, it's vital to have someone dedicated to responding promptly to funder requests and correspondence specifically.

Whether it is in the pre-application period, during the decision-making process, or after the award has been given, make sure that you respond promptly and concisely to donor emails and calls. This demonstrates a commitment, not only to accepting the donor's funds but also to the relationship you have with the funding organization. Funders will be much more likely to give your organization or renew a grant if they believe you are a reliable partner.

Step 4: Demonstrate Your Passion & Expertise

Remember that funders want to fund programs that they believe will be a success. As the natural authority on your project, you should be the most passionate about the work. You should prepare your talking points beforehand to ensure that you share that passion with potential funders by proving to them the value in awarding your organization funds.

Be honest about potential challenges or barriers to your program's success and your prepared solutions to address those. Always be upfront and honest. Funders are constantly working with other grantees and grant experts. Spend time crafting an elevator speech as well as honest answers to likely questions.

When crafting your elevator speech remember:

  • Identify the objective or ultimate goal of your elevator speech. Do you have a great program you’d like to pitch or are you trying to explain what your organization does more broadly that aligns with the funder’s mission? 
  • Whatever your goal, remember to describe what it is your organization does; the problem you address and the communities you serve.
  • Engage with open-ended questions that go beyond simple “yes” or “no” answers to bring them into the conversation. (We’ll share some examples of these kinds of questions in the section below).

Step 5: Follow Up and Close the Loop

Again, you want your communication with funders to go beyond asking for money. Be in regular contact and position your organization as a resource and a valuable partner.

Open lines of communication also make life easier when discussing challenges or barriers to meeting specific program deliverables or expectations. A trusting partnership makes it more comfortable to have a conversation about the issue and deepens the relationship by being transparent and honest.

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The Ultimate List of Questions to Ask Grant Funders When Building Relationships

List of Questions to Ask Grant Funders When Building Relationships

Maintaining meaningful and professional communication with funders is necessary to prepare questions that help you better understand what grant funders are looking for in potential grantees.

By engaging foundation funders in this way, you'll increase the likelihood that your organization will get funding, you'll keep them better informed about what their grants make possible, and you'll secure valuable feedback about your project.

Questions to Ask Prospective Funders

Unless the funder's guidelines say not to do so before submitting a proposal for funding, you will want to lay some groundwork with an introductory phone call or email. 

Reaching out to funders directly will give you a chance to introduce your project and test if it is a good match with the funder. Additionally, it allows the funder to conduct an initial screening of your organization and program compared to their giving priorities and eligibility guidelines.

Expanding on the Basics

These questions can help you when approaching foundations for funding to gain valuable information that is not published in the funding guidelines or clarify any vague details.

  • What percentage of applications are accepted?
  • Do you plan on holding information sessions or webinars? 
  • What is the average size of an award or grant? Is there a typical range?
    - Does your organization have any plans to change the award size in the near future?
  • Are there emerging areas of interest that haven’t been invested in before that you might expect investment in the next few years?

Determining a Match

You've invested time researching grant opportunities and preparing your grant application, but that isn't always enough to secure a grant. These questions will help you measure whether your organization and funder are an excellent match and bound to be natural partners. 

  • Does my organization and project meet your giving priorities and grant objectives? If there are different grant categories and cycles, which would be the best fit for my project?
  • Do you have a preference for single-year vs. multiple-year projects?
  • What can new or small organizations do to show credibility or capacity?
  • Are there other considerations that might be useful for us to know in preparing our application? 
  • How do you feel about multiple organizations collaborating on a grant proposal? Would we need to include a letter of support or formal memorandum of understanding?

Insight for a Successful Application

You might be surprised, but most foundation staff often want to assist non-profits and help them with their grant-seeking efforts. Remember, it's their job and mission to help you make appropriate requests that have the potential to turn into successful grants. Try asking these questions to gauge what a potential funder considers a successful application.

  • What makes for a meaningful relationship with a grantee?
  • Can you give an example of a successful grant proposal that really stood out and why?
  • What do successful proposals have in common? 
  • What can I do to increase my chances of getting a positive response to my proposal?
  • Is your board of directors involved in the decision-making process? What are they typically looking for in applications?
  • Why does your foundation normally say no to rejected applications? In what ways do applications fall short?
  • What kind of impact and outcomes do you want to see from a project and how should success be demonstrated?
  • What can make the difference between two well-qualified projects that might get you to take a leap of faith on one over the other?

Understanding Their Process

These questions are beneficial if the funding guidelines are not explicit or detailed. Just make sure to do your research to avoid asking questions readily available on a funder’s website.

  • If my application is rejected, can I reapply? If so, is the initial rejection held against me?
  • What approaches have worked for organizations which were successful after being initially rejected?
  • How are your applications processed? What's the key to a winning proposal?
  • How are proposals from previously rejected organizations evaluated?
  • Would you or another staff member consider coming out for a site visit if invited?
  • Are you open to giving us feedback on our proposal before we submit it?

Questions to Ask Once Funded

Congratulations! And while you should celebrate your team's success, this is also the beginning of the hard work, following through with the grant. You should immediately respond with a thank-you letter, extending your gratitude, excitement for the new relationship, and the impact that the funding will have. And make sure to reach out to any foundation staff or representative that were particularly helpful.

After communicating a prompt thank you, make sure to follow up. The following questions can be important for establishing clear guidelines for navigating your newfound partnership. 

  • How does your organization prefer to keep in touch with grantees?
  • Would you like to be added to our email list?
  • Are you interested in receiving newsletters or our annual report?
  • What is the likelihood of continued funding?

Questions to Ask When Your Nonprofit Got Rejected or Got Reduced Funding

If you get rejected...

Remember that even the worthiest of programs get rejected. There are always other sources of funding out there. But before you begin applying for them, learn what you can from the experience.

Continue to strengthen your relationship with the funder, and if it seems appropriate, try to find out why your organization didn’t get funded. Below are some questions that you can ask, but remember to stay professional and courteous.

  • Does your organization offer feedback on rejected proposals? 
  • Can I set up an appointment to get more information about your decision to strengthen our future proposals? 
  • Did you feel the proposal was clear and well-written?
  • What were the strengths or weaknesses of the proposal? What areas could use improvement? 
  • Was the project well-conceived? 
  • Would it be fitting to submit a proposal again in the next cycle? 
  • Are you aware of any other foundations that may be interested in our project? Is there a specific person to reach out to in particular?

If you get reduced funding...

There are many reasons why a funder may accept a proposal with a reduced dollar amount. This is still a win for your organization, and you should make sure to send a gracious thank-you letter as well in these cases. But if you want to follow up to find out what you can do about their decision, these questions might help.

  • Could you tell me anything about why our funding was reduced?
  • Is there anything about the proposal or the program that caused you to reduce the grant amount? 
  • Is there anything we could have done differently or should do differently during the next giving cycle?
  • Are you aware of any other foundations that it would make sense for us to approach to raise the remaining funds for our project?

Questions to Ask Mid-cycle Before Next Year

You don't want to have your only contact with a foundation when you ask about funding. It is crucial to maintain regular contact with your funders. They will likely want to know where their dollars are going, how your program is doing, its success and impact in the community. Make sure to touch in with your program officer or grant manager, at least once during the grant year. You can ask:

  • Do you have any advice on [a particular aspect of the program]?
  • Would you like to receive our newsletter? 
  • Would you like to drop by for a site visit sometime? 
  • Would you like to attend [an upcoming event or workshop]?
  • Is your organization expecting any forthcoming changes to giving priorities? 
  • Are there any current research papers or reports that you are particularly interested in or excited about? 

Questions to Ask Foundations that Don’t Have Active Opportunities

Just because a foundation doesn't have an active funding opportunity doesn't mean you shouldn’t reach out. In fact, reaching out to funders during their non-giving period may be an excellent opportunity to start asking preliminary questions and gain insight into the programs they are currently funding. This is especially true for funders with priorities that perfectly match your program or organization's mission.

  • Is your organization currently available for appointments with new or potential grantees?
  • Have there been any changes or new directions in the priorities of your organization?
  • Do you expect any changes to your organization's guidelines or giving priorities in the next cycle?
  • Are there any programs or organizations you currently fund that you are particularly interested in or excited about?
  • [After describing your program] Would it be appropriate to apply in the next cycle?
  • Would you like to be added to our email list or receive updates about our organization? 

Wrapping Things Up: How to Build Great Grant Funder Relationships

Building Great Grant Funder Relationships

When you build relationships with grant funders not only are you increasing your chances of receiving funds for your programs, you are also beginning the process of establishing brand awareness for your non-profit. Connecting with funders, delivering on your grant obligations, and maintaining honest and open communication is critical for establishing a good reputation in the community. 

To recap, in this article we covered: 

  1. The importance of developing meaningful relationships with funders. 
  2. The foundation for sustainable and impactful partnerships with funders.
  3. Practical steps for nonprofits to strengthen new and existing relationships with grant funders. 
  4. Questions to help you gain a better understanding about a funder’s priorities, giving practices, and decision-making processes.

Now it’s your turn! Try Instrumentl’s free 14-day trial now to build relationships with grant funders! Instrumentl’s unique matching algorithm will only show you active open grant opportunities that your nonprofit can apply for so you can start winning more grant funding.

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