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Throwing in the Towel

May 07, 2014

(Allison Shirk, a freelance grantwriter and grantwriting trainer based on Vashon Island, Washington, serves on the board of directors of the Puget Sound Grantwriter's Association. For more of Allison’s advice and wisdom, click here.)

Headshot_allison_shirkYou know that foundation that never returns your calls? The one you keep sending proposals to that never responds? You've poured over the foundation's 990-PF and its Foundation Directory Online profile. You've scoured the Web for information about its staff and giving. And everything you've found gives you reason to believe that if the good people at the foundation would just read your proposal, they'd want to invest in your organization. But you're still hanging on the telephone. Before you throw in the towel and decide to invest your time elsewhere, here are some things to keep in mind:

1. Look at more than one 990-PF. One of the most important tools in the grantwriter's toolkit is the 990-PF -- the annual reporting form foundations are required to file with the IRS that provides information on their mission, programs, and grantmaking. And every good prospect researcher knows that it's essential to review more than the foundation's most recent 990-PF; the last two or three years should be your default, and four or five is even better. When reviewing 990-PFs, keep in mind the following: Does the foundation make a point of funding the same nonprofits? What are the exceptions? Does it make grants in the amount you’re looking for? (If the amount of funding you are requesting is too much – or too little – the foundation is unlikely to fund your project.) While you're at it, be sure to review every page of the form. Sometimes there are additional guidelines or notes tucked into the form that can be the difference between winning and losing a grant.

2. Try to connect, but don't overdo it. Every foundation is distinguished by its own communication style and willingness to connect. If the foundation's policy is "no phone calls," respect its wishes. On the other hand, if the foundation has published a phone number or email address, don't be afraid to use it. Just make sure you've done your homework and, should you reach a person in a decision-making role, that you're ready to ask and answer a few pertinent questions.

3. Build a relationship. There are lots of wonderful books and online materials out there that show you how to cultivate a relationship with a funder. The most important rule, however, is the Golden Rule. Put yourself in the funder’s shoes and imagine how you would want to be treated if, for example, your local PTA called at dinnertime to ask for your financial support. Be respectful and responsive, and remember that relationship building is more art than science and unfolds over time.

4. Ask your colleagues for the scoop. In the fundraising world, having a network is critical. Leverage that network to find out what you can about others' experiences with the foundation in question. And be sure to reciprocate when it’s your network’s turn to ask you a question.

5. Know when to quit. In baseball, it's three strikes and you're out. Believe it or not, there are lots of foundations out there that simply will not fund a grant proposal from a nonprofit that is submitting their first grant proposal to the foundation. And there are more than a few that want to see a solid grant proposal from an organization three years in a row before they'll consider making a grant. But if after three tries you’re still hoping for a "hit," it's probably best to give it a rest until something changes in your organization or program that better positions your proposal for a favorable response.

One last piece of advice: Don't get discouraged. With access to information on more than 120,000 foundations through the Foundation Directory Online, you don't have to put all your eggs in one basket. Keep researching, keep digging, keep reaching out. If your program is a good one and you've done your homework, the investments will come.

Now it's your turn. What are some of your favorite tips for grantwriters or development pros on the verge of throwing in the towel? Use the comments section below to share....

– Allison Shirk

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Posted by Kathy Hersh  |   June 02, 2014 at 10:32 AM

Be sure to use the same language, key phrases, adjectives, etc., in your proposal without appearing to be pandering. That takes sincerity plus artistry.

If you get turned down and your foundation contact has been friendly and knowledgeable, ask for a recommendation of another foundation with a similar mission that might be a "lead." Sometimes friendly contacts offer this if they take the time to talk to you.

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