Jim sat down at his desk – computer squarely in front of him – as he started to write the last proposal…yes, this would be the 50th one this week…and it’s just April 15! He did his research like a good trooper, went to TexasNonprofits, pulled up foundations that looked perfect, all right smack in the middle of Houston, and wrote from the depths of his soul. He constructed the proposal carefully and precisely including everything he knew was special about his beloved nonprofit. He dotted every “i” and crossed every “t”. After hours, he reviewed, spell checked, carefully signed, stuffed the final envelope, and left for the post office. He dropped each one in the mailbox seperately and deliberately, wishing each one bon voyage.
Then Jim waited and waited for what seemed an eternity. Months later, he received a couple of replies. He opened the first beautiful linen envelope and slowly pulled out the letter….a very courteous “no” explaining like they all do that they “receive so many requests they cannot possibly fund each one even though this was indeed a great proposal”. Then he got a few more with the same discouraging words…and he became dismayed. Fifty letters to fifty foundations that give to others with the same mission. What did he do wrong? He tossed each one into the wastebasket with the basketball net inside – perfect slam-dunks….and then he picked up the phone and called TexasNonprofits.
Angry, he explained that our directory of foundations had failed him. He told us he had done everything just as we advised in our stories. He was very angry.
I asked Jim a couple of questions.
"Do you have a relationship with these people? Do you fully understand your mission and the purpose of your organization? How did you deliver your proposal? Did you stay on point? What are you going to do now?" Then I asked for details…so that I could help Jim understand some often hidden steps that mean everything in the grantwriting process.
“OK, so Jim, you sent 50 proposals out?” He quickly answered without a pause – “FIFTY JACKIE – FIFTY. And your list did not help me at all."
“Do you know them?” I said. “Nope!” said Jim. “But they were under youth and sports in your Directory and they are in Houston. They were perfect!”
“OK… wow, so let me ask you a question. If I come up to you as a perfect stranger and say, “You don’t know me but I am Jackie Beretta, and I need $25,000 to send 30 children to my ranch for summer camp this summer right now because I am a good person and deserve your charitable support. What would you say?” He laughed and said, “But you said I don’t know you. Of course I would say thank you, but no…after all, it’s not like a bunch of Girl Scouts coming up to the door asking me to buy cookies… Which, by the way, I would buy! You asked for $25,000! And in this scenario I have no idea who you are!”
“Exactly, Jim. It’s crazy of me to think that you would entrust me with $25,000 of your hard earned money when you have no idea who I am.”
Building a relationship is about trust
“Well…think about what you did. It is the same isn’t it? Building a relationship is a process. Many times, it involves rejections while you are just getting on the radar of a foundation. People tell you ‘no’ several times not to reject you, but unless they say do not send us another proposal ever again, you are not out of the game…ever.”
If you take a simple rejection personally, you will most likely never send another one to them; therefore, you will lose a great opportunity to get to know them. When you receive a letter of decline – it is not a personal affront. You must understand that.”
“And when they finally tell you yes and give you a small amount toward your project, it might just be a test to see how you do with that small gift. We were turned down over and over by a foundation until the exact right fit the third time – we sent it in and crossed our fingers – and low and behold, we were called and asked for more information which I quickly provided, and I was awarded a small grant. The next year we asked again, and received twice the amount of the first year we were funded and so on. Our first request put us in their radar screen…it was wonderful! But before we ever asked, we got to know them and were certain we could deliver something along the lines of their mission.” He was all ears by this time.
Be still and listen to what they say
“Do your research first. Make sure they are the right funder for your organization. Make sure their data is accurate. If you are fortunate enough to have the opportunity to visit with a prospective foundation, LISTEN to them. Quiet your brain – listen patiently to them speak. Listen to their dreams, their passion, what they hope to accomplish. Then, see if you fit into their picture. Many times you will find that these people want to feel the security of their past to go on into the future. In order to gain momentum and go on, we have to anchor to the past. It is about trust, which is worth gold.”
“If you listen, you will know what to do next,” I added almost as a second thought.
Ask for permission and be polite.
“Jim, instead of sending proposals out of the clear blue sky, we’ve always found that it is awfully nice to get to know the foundation first to see if you see any kind of fit, and then carefully ask for permission to submit a proposal. We run it past them, ask them if a proposal for such and such is appropriate. By that time, we feel we know them well, and our hunch and timing is usually right. Plus, when they ask you to go ahead and submit a proposal, it usually means you might have a pretty good chance.”
I continued, “Tell me about the language you used Jim?” He told me he described his organization perfectly – it was the best youth organization serving the largest number of low income kids in Houston.” So I asked, “How do you possibly know your organization is the best and how do you know you serve the greatest number?” He shook his head up and down…”We are the best – we know that, and with so many kids. Wow – you wouldn’t believe it Jackie!” “Hmmm”, I said…. “I am the best person I know at shooting hoops – in fact, I can beat any Spur!” Jim laughed….he was relaxing now and feeling much better. “Sure Jackie!” I laughed too. We were on the way to being a team now. It felt good.
“See, Jim, I exaggerated. And you thought it was funny, didn’t you?” He nodded yes laughing still. “And you knew I was really way off base, didn’t you?” Again he nodded yes, and this time I could hear him smiling. “That’s what exaggerating looks like. You have to write in a humble way, using accurate facts, good believable language, telling your story that properly explains your goals. You must be very careful that you are asking for something that is related to your mission, too. Stay on point and make it believable. Make it long enough to cover the subject and yet short enough to keep their attention and be interesting. I promise you, if you tell a good story, they will ask you for more details. Don’t reveal all of it at first, and make it candid. Be humble, create activators, and make the perfect match.”
“And then, there is the story. Have fun with your writing. Make sure it does not sound or feel like a tedious piece of writing, because you’ll never get funded that way these days. Write your grant to transport people to another place to see and feel an experience they may know nothing about. Write as if you were a novelist – and make that one page one they will hate to finish. You will be writing a story of people being helped, their lives possibly changed forever because of services provided by organizations like you. Write as if you are talking to your best friend with every single nuance.
-Carefully introduce your characters (those you serve).
-Describe the setting (where your services take place).
-Build tension to the conflict when you introduce the need you for which are requesting funding.
-Give them your resolution to the conflict when you explain your plan.
-Provide a way to end the story (measurement) that sows the seeds for a sequel. Reinforce the goals…and the ending.
- Don’t give too much information. Just enough. And then clean it up, cut it in half, cutting extra words that you don’t need anyway.
Setting yourself apart – be remarkable
“So Jim,” I asked, “How did you set yourself apart….how did you make your proposal unique?” He asked what I meant.
“Well, let me tell you about the TXNP member who called me from Austin,” I offered.
“Elizabeth called and asked me to quickly check out a certain Austin foundation who gave to human service organizations. I called the foundation and asked for an update on their giving goals. After I got exactly what I wanted, I called Elizabeth back and told her she was right on with her proposal. She wrote it and sent it me via email to peek at. I read it and liked it a lot….a few minor suggestions, which she implemented. I asked her how she was going to present it. Like many foundations, this one was located in a private home and the proposals had to be delivered by a certain day…and in this case it was two days later. There was no time for mail. I had spent some time on the phone with the Chair who seemed so down to earth and nice. I suggested that she take the proposal, put it in a little paper portfolio, and tie it with some good looking red ribbon. I also suggested that she tie a fresh daisy into the bow.”
“What”, said Jim? He listened and then objected. “I’m not wrapping any proposal up with red ribbon and a daisy!” I laughed, and said, “Of course not…. but it stood out. And you know what? By the time Elizabeth got back to the office, there was a call form the Chair of the family foundation thanking her for the very creative proposal. Ultimately, she was funded. She turned in a good proposal that stood out – she gave it some time – not cranking it out like others do. She made hers special.”
“So, you are an organization that serves underprivileged youth via sports. How can you present a creative (without cost) proposal that will stand out among the others, ”I asked? “How can you remove yourself from the clutter and whisper in our ears to be heard above the roar of the 3rd sector?”
“Constancy, reliability, dependability…these are good adjectives for your organization to aspire to.” He heard me, and I knew he was thinking about just that.
And so on
“So, Jim, how did you reply to all of these no’s and even to the ones you never heard back from?” I asked. Without skipping a beat he proudly said, ”I told you…I crumpled them up as best I could and tossed them into my basketball trashcan! Didn’t miss a single shot! Woo hoo! And as far as those who never bothered to respond….I crossed them off the list big time!”
Oh boy…this is a tough number, I thought. He had no clue about etiquette and positive behavior. We had already been on the phone an entire hour, but I was very inspired with my challenge and knew that with a bit of coaching, I might possibly be able to help him make something happen! He had the time to respond in a favorable way, as all of this had happened in the last few days.
“Jim. Listen. I want you to write me a letter and send it to me thanking this foundation for taking the time to review your proposal. Let them know you appreciate the work they do in your community, and then tell them you hope to have the privelege of working by their side as a funding partner sometime soon. Tell them you would like to have the opportunity to update them on your progress, and then do that. Send them updates telling them of your successes of the kids you touch. But do not ask them for anything. Just give them the opportunity to get to know you through your correspondence. Can you do that?” “YES! Yes I can, and I’ll send it to you this afternoon,” said Jim. He eagerly asked, “What else?”
Tell me about foundations today asked Jim
- “Think about the fact that the US government has stopped huge amounts of funding within the country today,” I continued. “Who picks up the slack? Individuals do and they give the largest amounts to religious organizations. Foundations and corporations pick up the slack, too, but their percentage of giving is smaller. These groups are carrying a big burden. There is less money to go around from fewer sources and yet a much bigger need than ever before.”
- “Because a handful of 501c3’s did their unethical deeds, all 501c3s are under scrutiny. For older foundation directors and founders, things aren’t as fun as they used to be. The bureaucratic process for philanthropy has become tedious. I was happy to attend a Town Hall meeting hosted by the Meadows Foundation in Dallas a few years ago. There, I met an elderly man who founded a foundation with his wife over half a century ago. She passed away several years ago and the passion they shared giving together has been overeshadowed by the exhaustion of the new IRS reporting laws and rules. He was ready to fold it up and spend it down. I sincerely hope he didn’t because there are options today. There are trust departments at banks that can manage all the boring parts of handling a foundation. There are also community foundations as well to lift the burden.”
- “There is also the issue that many foundations are being bombarded by inappropriate proposals – either ones that do not follow their mission, or ones to foundations that are pre-select only. A man and his wife in San Antonio asked me one night at a beautiful dinner party why sites like TexasNonprofits, Guidestar and the Foundation Center were allowed to be in existance. He was more than upset that information on his private family foundation was plastered all over the Internet and in books. He tried to explain (and I totally understood) that he and his family hand-chosen (pre-select only) what organizations they gave to and he was exhausted receiving 100’s of inappropriate proposals each year. Jim…do you see how a proposal to one of these angry people, when they try to make it public that they do not give to any organizations except those they choose, can set off an angry fury?”
- “Foundations are run by humans, too. Remember this when you call them. Because of life’s every day issues, they can be out of commission at times. TXNP received a call from a nonprofit in Texas furious and ready to sue a local foundation who didn’t have time for them on the phone. After calling twice, the nonprofit called TXNP and asked us what to do. We asked them to be patient while we tried to contact the foundation. After two days we reached the elderly gentleman and asked how he was doing. The first words out of his mouth were broken…and then silence. Then he said it had been the hardest week of his life because he had lost his wife. He was devastated. We called the nonprofit back and explained what had happened, and they immediately sent flowers and a memorial to the family. It was all resolved. Foundation directors are human, too, and they give to feel good.”
“Sad but true – the government has taken away some of the romaniticism of giving, but in this day of extraordinary record keeping, it’s a must. Young donors are used to bureaucracy and paperwork, so all this exhausting record keeping is okay with them. While some donors like to give and then sit back and watch how you do, others like to get on the board, volunteer, and help manage the organization. It is up to you to determine how your donor would like to participate.”
“So often today, people get angry when they don’t receive the results they hope for…instead of being grateful for even having the opportunity to ask.”
“Besides writing the thank you note, be proud that you, in fact, had the courage to write this foundation and tell them about your needs. Now, you have a history to work with,” I said. “But promise me…do not ever write a proposal cold turkey to some one you have never met again. This is a big no-no. In future correspondence, whether by mail, email or phone always wear a smile – people can ‘hear’ and ‘feel’ your smile. It can be infectious…even for yourself. Smiling is the best medicine. Never give up…think Alexander Graham Bell, think Winston Churchill, think Thomas Edison.”
So what do to do now?
"Did you check out the foundation on TXNP? You know we have detailed information on foundations. Is your program a priority to them? Are you asking for a fair amount?
There are too many choices now to fund and too little time. Sometimes it’s the enthusiasm and creaivity in your voice or the wide breadth of a smile that gets attention. Big decisions can be made on the smallest of details…..
Lifeless fundraising will not work anymore. People are too sophisticated. Confidence, focus, and results are imperative.
Be quick and nimble on your feet. You have to be ready to catch yourself if you stumble and fall because of an unexpected event in the economy, or a natural disaster. Things can change in a brief second...the possibility that people’s sense of logic might change in how they look at your organization. You must be ready for everything. Small is better and easier to navigate.
Whatever you do, whomever you contact, be genuine. Show real passion for what you are trying to accomplish. A donor can recognize a fake in one nano second.
For many business people, you want to combine the heart and the head and use your business experience and talent to ensure funds you give are most effectively used…performance philanthropy.
This is the ultimate way to interact with potential funders. Build a long-term relationship with potential funders, put their interests first, respond with integrity to their needs, and try to exceed their expectations. This is called action planning.
Integrity remains of the highest importance in our dealings with our clients and with each other. It is our key defining characteristic, and we try never to forget that it is a real privilege to serve organizations as they carry out their immensely important - if varied - work, trying to make the world a better place.”
Ways to attract young people are changing. A cause must be compelling and relevant. Young donors want to walk hand in hand with the nonprofits they seek to support by sitting on their boards, helping with decision making, and participating.
And remember the old fashioned trends that still work including personal contact, personal thank you's, cultivating a friendship, and fulfilling a passion that makes your donor and you feel good.
It’s just good old common sense."