February Main Article

Stop Writing + Start Dialing to Grow Your Grants Program

Building and maintaining relationships with funders is the most crucial role for the executive director in grant seeking. This starts by seeking a conversation with a grant maker well before submitting a grant proposal.

A personal phone call is a fast-track opportunity to make your contact at a foundation aware of your organization and its funding needs. This can also help you refine your strategy if the foundation has updated its guidelines, isn’t presently a good fit, or doesn’t currently have grant funds for distribution.

Follow these steps to warm up a new relationship with a funder before you apply for a grant:

Be Prepared: Preparing for your first call to a foundation is an important step in making a great impression. Does the potential grantor post guidelines on the web? Check to see if the foundation has published suggested steps for a first contact (e.g. call, email, LOI).  If not, it’s safe to make a call and time to prepare for your first connection.

Research First: Increase your chances of success and show respect for your contact’s time by doing the groundwork first. If you haven’t already, research the foundation’s giving and guidelines to build your brief case for support. Has the foundation supported a similar mission or project that signals that they might have interest in yours?  Have you contacted your board to learn if a trustee has a connection with the foundation and would be willing to lend their name? Have you built a brief list of two or three projects you might discuss if the opportunity presents itself? These are all topics to consider before you kick off your conversation.

Dial + Smile: Before you call, remind yourself that it is as important to convey attitude as it is to share information.  While your internal goal is to start a conversation that may lead to funding, your immediate objective is to make a call that is brief, memorable, and inspiring to your contact, so that they do not feel trapped but instead understand that you are respectful of their schedule and value their insight. Just like if you had the opportunity to give an “elevator speech” in person, things like tone and inflection are important.

Script, Please: Even if you are familiar with your contact, you may want to prepare a script first.  But don’t read from it!  This is to help you stay on task and accomplish the basics:

  • Introduce and inquire—briefly introduce yourself, your organization, and the part you play. If the contact is busy or unavailable, be flexible and offer to email your inquiry and schedule a time to talk.
  • Describe connection/reason for call. For example, “I understand that the (insert name) Foundation supports organizations and projects centered on education and job training. Do you have a minute to discuss a project we’re engaged in that takes an innovative and effective approach to both? I’m curious if it would interest you and if we might consider approaching you for grant support.” If you have a trustee or stakeholder connection, this is when you might mention it.
  • Briefly describe project or support idea.
  • Ask—is there a fit for a grant application?
  • Listen—throughout the call, but especially now, it is time to take in details. Even if the answer is “no” or “not right now,” this conversation can help you build familiarity with the foundation and even reframe a strategy for the future. The fundraising landscape is ever-changing, so building strong bridges is always a good idea.
  • Confirm—ask about deadlines and the best source for information and guidelines. If appropriate and they haven’t published this detail, ask what gift request amount or range might be appropriate.
  • Extend invitation—whether the foundation is or is not currently a good fit for support, demonstrate confidence in your organization and its mission by inviting the foundation contact to join you for a visit, so that they might witness its programs in action.
  • Close—by thanking them for their time, and if you have both decided you might apply, restate your intentions.

If you follow this approach, chances are you will not only ramp up your grant funding and save time, but you will also create a personal platform to build more relationships of advocacy. The old adage “people give to people” is not just true for individuals, but for all relationships. It is a great advantage to have foundation representatives know you, your organization, and its programs, as they often meet, share, and advocate within their networks. As you take these steps, it’s more likely that your grants will continue to grow!


Jessica Robb