Foundations are critical sources of funding for nonprofits. Though they only account for about 15% of overall funding, they represent more than $600 billion, typically give larger gifts than individuals, and often commit to giving over a longer period of time.
But if you’ve never had a formal meeting with a foundation, it might be a little overwhelming. After all, knowing how important foundation funding is to your organization—and having a major role in acquiring that funding—may very well make you nervous. But as long as you walk into that meeting prepared and confident, it will be a great experience (and maybe even fun!).
To make sure you make a great impression on behalf of your organization, here are a few things to remember as you head into your first meeting with a foundation program officer.
1. Do Your Research
Before the meeting, you’ll want to get familiar with the mission of the foundation and its programs and find out what other organizations it funds. You should also try to get a sense of how big of a grant you can realistically ask for—you don’t want to request $1 million if they can only afford $10,000.
You can find all of this information on the foundation’s tax returns (which are publicly available on Guidestar or Foundation Center) or its website. After all, the organization wants to provide as much information as possible to potential grantees to prevent an inundation of inappropriate proposals.
Once you have this information, you can better determine how to frame your organization to make it clear that your program fits the foundation’s priorities.
2. Focus on Priorities, Not Personality
While you may be able to use your charm to score a donation from an individual donor, a foundation officer is going to need more than that. Different foundations may give their program officers varying levels of authority, but in no situation will a program officer be allowed to give your nonprofit a grant just because he or she likes you or your organization’s mission. Program officers are, after all, working for their organizations, and they need to determine whether funding your program will help them meet their overall goals.
For instance, if you’re in charge of an after-school program that keeps at-risk youth off the streets, you may approach a foundation that focuses on getting at-risk kids into college (perfect fit, right?). But if the foundation is currently only focusing on academic programs, your request for funding may get rejected. Even if you’re able to convince the program officer that you’re both working toward the same end goal, he or she still has to play by the rules of the foundation.
Don’t take it personally, but do keep your eye on your target organizations’ funding priorities. Many foundations change their strategies every few years, and you might be a better fit in the future.
3. Skip the Background Info
Most foundation employees have backgrounds relevant to their organization’s area of focus, either from their education or previous work experience. Not to mention, they constantly work with similarly focused organizations and read their proposals and reports all day, every day. In other words, you don’t need to explain to them why early childhood education is so important or how difficult it is to enforce environmental protections—they know all that. Your goal should be to respect that knowledge and show how you can enhance it.
Focus on explaining how your nonprofit makes a difference in your field and what makes it unique. Foundations will likely read about or meet with organizations that, on paper, look just like yours. So, you should be prepared with data and stories that demonstrate your need for funding and your ability to have an impact—above all of the other programs out there.
4. Be Patient
Like most businesses, there’s bureaucracy in foundations—often, even more so because their actions are scrutinized by the government. Although exact requirements differ from foundation to foundation, you can generally expect that, to request funding, you’ll need to submit a letter of inquiry, a full proposal, and a program budget, then wait for the Board of Directors or grants committee to approve your proposal, and finally, in some cases, sign an agreement letter before you receive the check. While this process can take as little as six weeks, I’ve also seen it take more than two years.
Your meeting is an important step in the process, but keep in mind, it’s only one step. Be patient and stay in contact with your program officer, who will have a better sense of your strength as a candidate and the timetable you can expect.
Although fundraising from a foundation takes a good deal of time and effort, it is also the best way to bring in significant funding from educated donors who understand how nonprofits work. In many cases, my foundation program officers are my strongest allies and have helped me identify new pools of funding, prepare for strategic planning, and introduce me to new program partners. Once you build your confidence with a few good meetings, you might even start enjoying them!