Winning Grants Step by Step

Step 2: Developing Relationships with Funders

BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS WITH FUNDERS is a long-term, sincere, and strategic investment of time and intention. Once it is determined that an organization’s proposed program is solid, time and focused effort needs to be invested in identifying funders who are potentially a match with both the organization and its proposed program, project, or special initiative. Resources on the Winning Grants Step by Step, Fourth Edition website offer links to other sites with detailed information and tips on how to effectively conduct prospect research to successfully identify possible funders. Step Two also provides no-nonsense advice about prospect research and then offers ideas for developing relationships once funders are identified. Please refer to Resource A (What Is a Foundation?) to learn more about what foundations are and how they work.

Making the Initial Approach

A grantmaker’s website typically holds all the information grantseekers need to determine whether it is a match. In fact, in this day and age, it is now fairly commonplace for all grant guidelines and supporting materials to be on the website; funders are “going green” in every way and reducing paper consumption. So not only are grant guidelines online but, as mentioned in the Introduction, grant proposals are now routinely submitted online and paperless. Typically, grantseekers will find an abundance of information, including—but by no means limited to—background information on the foundation as an institution, its staff and board of directors, grant guidelines, and special funding initiatives, if any. Most funder websites will also proudly feature current and previous grantees or the programs successfully funded. Foundations, like all 501(c)3 organizations, are required by law to provide access to their Internal Revenue Service Form 990, which is their annual tax return. Many may have a link to this document on their websites, or they can be located by visiting Guide Star ( or the Foundation Center (

These success stories provide the very best indicators of what specific funders are likely to fund in the future. Some funders may have additional microsites (separate sites that are linked to the main site) for particular funding initiatives they have launched. That said, other funders may still require additional sleuthing on the part of the grantseeker before they can appropriately glean whether there is truly a match. So in addition to reviewing funder websites, grantseekers should use various search engines to research their previous giving to other organizations and perhaps also to look for feature stories about them (if not found on their websites) or pick up the telephone and call a foundation directly.

But be prepared: this conversation just might lead to a brief discussion of the proposed project or program, so the caller should be ready to talk about it and hit the highlights. Who knows? This may be the start of a great new relationship. After reviewing a grantmaker’s website and other related materials, determine clarity around there being a potentially solid fit between the organization’s proposed program or project and what the grantmaker says it is interested in funding. Grantseekers need to recognize that the relationship they make with foundation staff is one based on mutual need; they then need to be on a mission to educate foundation staff on what they need from the grantseeker’s organization.

In addition, it is important not to assume that funders know and understand the grantseeking organization’s mission or target audience or that the program being presented is addressing a priority of theirs.

Developing the Relationship

After establishing that there is a good fit, relationship building becomes a continuous process that begins before a single word of a proposal is written, and it spans many years. Keep in mind that it is a relationship, rather than a transaction. Good communication with funders should never end, even if and when the organization may stop receiving grants from them. Once a relationship exists, funders like to receive progress reports about how the organization or program they funded is doing. They may also take an interest in other compelling ideas that the organization has developed.

It’s not always easy to develop relationships with funders, especially if they have not previously funded an organization. However, the key is the relationship part of that phrase. It’s relationship building, rather than selling, that makes a difference.

Here are a few concrete ways to approach a funder to open the door to relationship building. These are discussed more fully in the following subsections.

While grant guidelines determine a nonprofit’s initial approach, grantseekers may have a connection to the funder, either directly or through one or more contacts who can potentially open a door on behalf of the organization for an initial meeting or phone conversation.

Reality Check

Be strategic and err on the side of restraint when using a contact to open a door with a funder. Few things are worse than dealing with a program officer who feels pushed into a meeting. Grantseekers always want an invitation, rather than a meeting based on obligation. Think “soft touch” rather than “heavy hand.”

Sending Email Inquiries to Funders

Many funders offer grantseekers the option of contacting them via email with questions and funding inquiries. Some grantmakers even provide direct email access to their program officers from their websites; others may have an “info@” email that is routed to the appropriate staff person after review. In either case, email is a valuable tool for stimulating further, more meaningful, contact because it provides an opportunity for a brief introduction as a staff person, as well as the organization represented and the program needing funding. At the same time it gives the program officer the time he needs to review the information and potentially respond. Email is far less demanding for program officers than a phone call and less wasteful than paper documents. And given the significant shift from paper to electronic processes, email is all the more important. The key is to keep it brief! Resist the urge to write a mini proposal in the email. Grantseekers can also request an in-person meeting or time for a phone conversation in the email, which then provides the funder with options for responding to the communication.

Contacting a Funder by Telephone

Before calling a funder to pitch an idea, be prepared. The person with whom a grantseeker speaks may have only a short time for a conversation, so preparation is essential. Be ready to provide the highlights of the organization’s program within a ten- to fifteen-minute conversation. This time frame includes the time it may take for the person to ask for clarification of any points. Grantseekers should remember that they are not selling their organization’s program to a funder; they are attempting to make a connection between the program and the funding institution’s interest areas. To actively build a long-term relationship with the funder and with this particular representative, careful and engaged listening to the funder’s needs and providing information the funder wants is extremely important.

In listening to the funder’s needs, one might discover—sometimes very early in the conversation—that there in fact is not a match between the organization’s program and the funder’s current funding priorities; that is why grantseekers should have one or two other program ideas in mind to present as a backup. Do not waste this opportunity with the funder; be fully prepared with information on clearly identified unmet needs that may fit into the funder’s interest areas.

Writing a Letter of Inquiry

A letter of inquiry (or LOI) is sometimes the first step in a funder’s grantmaking process, particularly if the relationship between prospective grantee and funder is new. An LOI provides the funder with a “sneak peek” at the organization, target audience, and prospective program, without requiring the grantseeker to develop a full proposal at this early stage. After the funder has reviewed the information presented in the LOI, the organization may or may not be invited to submit a full proposal. Even though an LOI is a preliminary step, it should be treated as a vital part of relationship building. It is an integral first interaction of what grantseekers hope will be many interactions with the funder. If asked to submit an LOI, check to see whether the funder has specific LOI guidelines. If it does not, the following list suggests what information to include, as a general rule:

The sample LOI included in this step presents to a funder the Swim 4 Life Program, which will be used as an example program throughout this workbook. This is the letter that the Swim 4 Life program executive director would submit if an LOI was invited by the funder or if the funder accepted unsolicited submissions.

Sample Letter of Inquiry

July 17, 2012

Wendy Wonder, President
XYZ Foundation
0000 Clinton Avenue, Suite 2330
Anytown, Any State 02009

Dear Ms. Wonder:

I appreciate the time Anne Jonas has taken to communicate with us about how our programs fit with the XYZ Foundation’s funding priorities, and the encouragement she offered us. Therefore, on behalf of the Board of Directors and staff, I am honored to submit this brief Letter of Inquiry introducing Swim 4 Life, an innovative swimming instruction program by Jane Swimmer, a former U.S. Olympic swimming hopeful and hometown hero. We respectfully request your consideration of a grant of $25,000 to help us expand our programs for low-income youth from two to three schools in the Gathenton School District.

Established as a 501(c)3 organization in 2008, the mission of the Swim 4 Life program is to empower youth in the underserved communities throughout King County through high-quality programs to utilize the discipline of swimming to improve physical fitness, nurture self-esteem, and acquire the confidence to advance their lives. This mission is currently being fulfilled through programs currently operated at Arthur Schomburg Middle School in South Spring and the Rockmore Education Complex High School in Abbington. More than 450 youth have participated since operations began, and we would now like to add Cooperville Middle School, also located in Abbington.

The need for programs like Swim 4 Life is enormous in the communities we serve. Swimming has not been a popular sport in African American or Latino communities in some measure as a result of various factors including access to pools and other safe places to swim. Historically speaking, African Americans were denied access to public pools prior to the civil rights movement—and after in many instances. As a result, this population turned to water holes, ponds, and other unsupervised alternatives, which led to rates of drowning among people of color that far exceed those of whites. For example, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest report in early 2012, the drowning rate for African Americans between the ages of five and fourteen was more than three times that for whites.

Through a range of summer and after-school services, the Swim 4 Life program teaches children to be “water safe” and to swim, and prepares them for competitive team training if they want to further develop their skills. Our program at one school even provides swim instruction specifically for students with disabilities. Our partnership with the Gathenton School District offers us the opportunity to replicate the programs throughout the cities of Rockmore and South Spring in King County, contributing to improved health and fitness of hundreds of youth who have been excluded from the sport because of limited access to safe pools.

With your help, we will expand our program from two to three schools in the Gathenton School District and achieve the following specific programmatic outcomes with the low-income students and students of color we plan to serve in 2012:

The outcomes listed above represent a 25% increase in the numbers of students we will serve.

Because of your commitment to encouraging low-income youth and young people of color to reach their fullest potential, as well as your geographic focus in King County, we sincerely hope that the XYZ Foundation will join us as our partner in this important program.

The Swim 4 Life Program budget is $468,800, of which $150,000 remains to be raised. So as you can see, your gift of $25,000 for the expanded program will go a long way toward helping us meet our budget. In addition, investing in Swim 4 Life will make a significant impact on the ability of economically disadvantaged King County, Any State, youth to create a brighter future for themselves. If you have any questions, please feel free to call me at (111) 111–1111. We deeply appreciate your invitation of this Letter of Inquiry and trust that you will see enough of a connection between our program and your foundation’s mission that you will invite a full proposal.


Shawn Jones, Executive Director

Now that a sample LOI has been presented and reviewed, take the time to answer the questions in Worksheet 2.1, which is located both at the end of this chapter and on the Winning Grants Step by Step, Fourth Edition companion website, as clearly as possible. This exercise will help in developing a strong letter of inquiry for funders. If grantseekers cannot clearly and articulately answer the questions, that probably means that they need to gather more information before they can effectively complete an LOI.

Meeting with a Funder

Many grantseekers dream of having face-to-face meetings with prospective funders prior to submitting a proposal because they want not only to get clarification from the funders on key issues but also an opportunity to “prime the pump” and get the grantmakers excited about the program even before they receive the proposal. Unfortunately, preproposal funder meetings are few and far between, because funders simply cannot accommodate every nonprofit’s request for them. Also, some funders are leery of these meetings because they do not want to raise unrealistic funding expectations in grantseekers. Managing grantseeker expectations is of the utmost importance to the majority of funders: they certainly want to encourage the submission of solid proposals for programs meeting their interest areas, but they do not want to raise false hope at the same time. Remember: every foundation and corporate grantmaker has a limited amount of funding available for grants every year. That said, if an organization has a contact that already has a strong relationship with a funder, this individual may be able to help broker a meeting. After doing the due diligence of funder research, grantseekers should think about others they know who may also know the funder. Understand also that any early meeting secured with the grantmaker will be very preliminary and in no way ensures that the grantseeker will receive funds from this source.

If an in-person meeting is scheduled, grantseekers should take materials that best describe the organization and the proposed program. In the meeting the grantseeker should attempt to cover the following topics:

Time with a program officer is likely to be short, so organizations should be prepared to hit the highlights. Listen carefully to the funder’s questions and any concerns expressed, and make sure questions are answered fully and truthfully. These questions and concerns should also be addressed again in the proposal that will be submitted following the meeting, provided there is a good fit.

Here are some additional steps to take to develop good relationships with funders with whom the grantseeker has spoken:

Reality Check

Electronic applications. These come in the form of either an actual web-based portal that grantseekers essentially fill out/fill in, and grant guidelines that instruct grantseekers to email the proposal and required attachments, rather than mailing paper copies. The web-based grant proposal portals have a specific space for each proposal component, and they are sometimes limited in the number of words per section. Among funders using electronic applications are the W. K. Kellogg Foundation (, The Skoll Foundation (, The Agnes and Eugene Meyer Foundation (, and the Hertz Foundation (www.dothertzfoundation/org/dz/fellowships/application.aspx). Please visit any one of these foundation websites to see clear examples of online application processes. There are more examples located on the Winning Grants Step by Step, Fourth Edition website.

Letter of Inquiry Review Questions

  1. Is the name of the program and amount of request clearly stated in the first paragraph?

  2. Does the second paragraph elaborate further on the proposed project, as well as any related projects (when applicable)?

  3. Is the organization’s mission statement included?

  4. Is the need the proposed program intends to meet clear? Are some preliminary data to support the need for the proposed program included?

  5. Are the specific program outcomes the program is targeted to achieve described clearly?

  6. Is program implementation included?

  7. Is the “fit” or natural connection between the organization’s program and the funder’s priority areas, as identified in their guidelines, included?

  8. If there is some funding already committed to the project, and is it mentioned?

  9. Is the program’s contact person clearly identified, including all contact information?

Developing relationships with funders is such an important step in the process of winning grants that the value of doing it well cannot be emphasized enough. Now that funder relationships have been explained and helpful hints provided, it’s time to develop the problem statement, which is Step Three.