Want to Attract Grantmaker Attention?

Three Helpful Tips from Foundation Officers

Image credit: pexels karolina grabowska

It’s a noisy, competitive world out there! How do we stand out from the crowd and attract grantmaker attention? I recently had the opportunity to talk with three foundation officers who shared some helpful advice.  

Vision Alignment

The most important thing to donors is a shared vision. They want to know that you see the world as they do and can help them achieve the improvements they want. Even if your vision is terrific, if it does not line up with donors’ interests, they won’t bite. You want both a personal interest and an emotional connection to your nonprofit’s vision.

Keep your nonprofit’s best interests at heart while also considering the best interest of the donor. Like in dating and romance, the partnership must benefit both parties. If the match is right, there is nothing more exciting than joining up in a value-enhancing partnership and passionately furthering a vision together. Ultimately, no one benefits if accommodating a donor’s interest means that the nonprofit loses sight of its identity (also known as mission creep).

How do you start the conversation? One of the foundation officers shared this advice: do your homework, use research databases to find out who is funding in your issue area, get familiar with what grantmakers have funded in the past, and pay close attention to how they word their calls for proposals. She also advised being proactive about building relationships. For example, you might look for ways to bump into them at professional conferences they are likely to attend.

If there appears to be interest or a match, then will you start exploring the details together. But first and foremost, the relationship begins as both parties assess whether there is a shared vision.

Well-Defined Outcomes

Donors want to know: what is the audacious, exciting change in the world that your nonprofit aims to achieve?

Nothing will turn a grantmaker off faster than a proposal that is focused mostly on a nonprofit’s activities. For example, “we will run a capital campaign for our new building, we will conduct three events, publish five studies, or run two summer camps.” But notice how these activities are only a means to an end. By contrast, outcomes are meaningful changes in the world: e.g., changes in conditions, attitudes, or behaviors; evidence of learning; measurable changes in people’s lives; or policy changes.

Consider this example of how a program for at-risk youth describes outcomes: “we expect a majority of our program participants to stop engaging in violent crime. While the state recidivism rate is 52%, we expect that only 33% of our program participants will recidivate, a significantly lower rate.” That’s a compelling statement!

Understandably, nonprofit teams can feel nervous or uncomfortable making commitments about outcomes given that they have far less control over outcomes than activities. But we must shed these fears—grantmakers understand that outcomes are aspirational. Another challenge is that meaningful change might take years or even decades. When that is the case, we should simply say so. We can explain our step-change plan and that we expect short-term, interim, and multi-year long-term outcomes.

For more about outcomes, see, What are Your Organization’s True Outcomes?

An Approach for Scaling

What do we mean by scaling, and what does it look like for nonprofits?

Think about the difference between 10% change and 10X change; i.e., compare addition and multiplication. A multiplier effect involves great leaps in growth from 1 to 10 to 100 to 1,000.

Image credit: Unsplash, Gayatri Malhotra

It’s a way of showing grantmakers how you are thinking about the larger ramifications of your work. There are as many examples of scaling as there are nonprofit missions and capabilities. Here are a few examples:

If your nonprofit’s work involves training future trainers or practitioners, then the work is scalable. For example, as the Mayo brothers were making new medical discoveries, they realized that the Mayo Clinic could have far greater impact if they trained invited surgeons from across the country to visit, learn, and share knowledge: “My interest and my brother’s interest is to train men for the service of humanity. What can I do with one pair of hands? But, if I can train 50 or 500 pairs of hands, I have helped hand on the torch.”

In the wonderful book Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time coauthor Greg Mortenson describes his first experience building a school for an impoverished village in Afghanistan. There were many challenges, yet he would go on to scale this work by launching a foundation and building more schools throughout Afghanistan. His work would improve using the foundational lessons he learned at the first school, including navigating important cultural, geographic, and local political realities. Today, even under the Taliban regime, courageous educators are still carrying out this important work, though underground and at great risk.

As you show your thinking about scaling the work of your nonprofit, this is the perfect opportunity to give the grantmaker some options: “here’s what a $$ donation will lead to, here is what $$$ can do, and here is what $$$$ can do . . . .”

Your plan for scaling will really get a grantmaker’s attention.

What advice do you have for ways to attract grantmaker attention? Feel free to share in the comments.

Notes: Leonard L. Berry and Kent D. Seltman, “Preserving the Patient-First Legacy,” chap. 2 in Management Lessons from Mayo Clinic: Inside One of the World’s Most Admired Service Organizations (n.p.: McGraw Hill, 2017).