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The Balanced Grant Seeking Program, Part Two: Reloading Your List and Sharpening Your Strategy

When I am formulating or refreshing a prospect list for a client, I ask myself “Given the agency’s plans to expand or enhance programming during the coming year …”

  • Which current grantors can increase their giving from a sustaining to an investment level?
  • Which foundations must we attract to bring significant dollars and credibility to the organization and its programs?
  • What are the current giving trends among these current and prospective foundations that might marry well to the emerging direction of the client’s programming?

Case: a youth serving organization that has a robust education program is now focusing on STEM education.  The first step was to look globally at education funders giving in the client’s geographic service area who are moving in the direction of supporting STEM programs.  Having identified several funders who meet this criteria, the next step was to ascertain which ones could give at an investment level   significantly improving our chances of growing and ultimately sustaining a program This core group of funders became the centerpiece of the foundation strategy during the following year and, as a result of excellent follow up and outreach by the client, foundation giving for this organization increased significantly.

Having identified the major prospects for investment grants, now we turn our attention to sustaining funders.  Prospects that go onto this list include:

  • Existing donors where the size of gift is limited and an investment gift is not possible
  • Lapsed donors that fit the same criteria
  • Emerging foundations or foundations associated with individual donors to the institution

The name of the game in building or improving the portfolio is strategic balance.  On one hand, the major players who can bring cash and credibility.  On the other, sustaining grants that will ensure the quality of your work.  

Balancing your portfolio of grants between investment and sustaining grants also requires you to balance the investment of your time and resources.  Logically, larger foundations with more resources to invest may require more intensive use of time — to cultivate, apply and ultimately to steward — than smaller foundations.   Thus, the name of the game when developing an effective outreach strategy is efficiency.

Some questions that will help to determine the most efficient use of time are:

  • Do we have a good working relationship with this funder already?
  • If so, is the funder accessible to us?  Will they take the time to listen, meet, discuss a more significant investment?
  • If not, do we have access to the funder at a significant level?  Do we have close personal contacts to leadership within the foundation that will help us to get the most effective hearing for our case?
  • Is this a foundation where we might meet their expectations when it comes to outcomes or reporting?  Will we have to adjust our work or our systems significantly to fit into how this funder does business?  If so, can that adjustment be easily made?
  • If the foundation is a prospect for sustaining support, do we have enough of a track record to make a case to continue our work?  Would this funder find value in what we do for the modest size of its grant?

Considering the significant number of hours required by an organization’s staff and volunteers to cultivate, solicit and steward grant support, selectively choosing prospects is essential to a balanced portfolio.  Because you will have begun your process by focusing on donors that are close to your agency or to your project, you are building an inner circle of donors who should be seen – and treated – as investors in the program. Because these donors now have a vested interest in your program, every step should be made to include funder as a partner. Seek the grantmaker’s advice on your fund-raising plan and ask for help in opening doors to other potential donors.

If the donor is unable to help in these ways, seek the grantor’s permission to be positioned as a champion for the project in funding updates to other prospective donors. While no direct contact may take place between these prospects and the lead donor, a carefully crafted statement of support can be developed with the donor’s approval and added to supporting documents for the funding proposal.

Finally, don’t forget your Board or your network of volunteers. All volunteers want to help, but frequently need the security blanket of someone else setting the example. Reluctant fund-raising volunteers often “come to life” when presented with the opportunity to tell their prospects that your organization and its program have the backing of a key foundation.

John Hicks