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Funder Perspective: Ways to Build Stronger Ties With Foundations

(May 5, 2009) Sometimes for a foundation, making a grant to an organization is a lot like sending a child to college. What are they really doing with the large investment you’ve made? This week eWire spoke with two seasoned foundation leaders about what they are looking for in a grantmaker-grantee relationship. Often it’s as simple as picking up the phone.

Common to both interviews this week was the notion that when a grant is made the relationship is just beginning. Foundations have to show results, and so they want to see and hear about the tangible benefits to people. As with individual donors, this is an opportunity to turn cold, numeric progress reports into a hands-on experience of the good work of your organization. And when challenges arise, foundation leaders say it makes all the difference that they are among the first, not the last, to know.

“It really is an excellent time to be building that relationship with your current funders,” says Judith Margolin, vice president for planning and evaluation at The Foundation Center. “Unfortunately, we as fundraisers can be so concerned about getting the money that we ignore the relationship. The important part, so often ignored, is what happens after the grant is made.”

Follow Through

Frances Phillips, program director for the arts at the Haas Fund in San Francisco, agrees. “I have grantees who are very aggressive and thorough when it comes to submitting their grant applications, and I appreciate that,” she says. “But when it comes to final reports they are lackadaisical.” What is important to realize, she explains, is that the written narrative repots and financial reports that her foundation requires are key to the decision to award future grants. In other words, the foundation seeks good stewardship of their gift.

“Each of these grants is an investment in a kind of experiment into what works—and I am as interested in what happened as what an organization is proposing to do in the first place,” Phillips continues. “Yet so many people do not take advantage of the report as a critical fundraising tool.”

Margolin notes that foundations’ strong emphasis on monitoring progress comes from pressures placed on them. “I do think that fundraisers need to be aware that foundations are under enormous pressure to demonstrate to their own board that the money given away is being used effectively. The only way for them to do that is for organizations to submit thorough reports.”

The Tough Phone Call

Another important part of the funder-grantee relationship is keeping funders in the loop about hiccups and setbacks.

“If something goes wrong, then tell me—and tell me early,” says Phillips. “Even if things are yet unresolved, it’s better that I know. It makes a bad impression if I hear about it from someone else first. It can be just a five minute phone call explaining what is being done to take care of a problem that has arisen.”

“It’s the same advice that you might give someone who is in debt,” adds Phillips. “Better to let the bank know now and explore your options than to keep silent.”

Like any relationship, open communication is vital. Unfortunately, grantees are sometimes afraid to be honest and forthright about challenges they are facing for fear of losing funding, Margolin says. In those times it’s important to realize that the foundation has a stake in your success. “My basic advice is that at the end of the day, fundraising is still about people—even when you are dealing with foundations.”

More Tips

Do your homework before calling. “I’m always happy to talk about whether a project is a good fit and how to focus it,” says Phillips. “But so many people call out of the blue without focused and prepared questions.” Phillips says it is obvious to her when people have not gone to the website and read the information about the kinds of projects her foundation funds and its overall funding approach. It’s important to make sure phone calls make the best use of time for both parties, she explains.

Cultivation = Information.  Just as with phone calls, Phillips looks for grantees to make good use of time with face-to-face meetings and visits to the grant recipient organization. “Fundraisers are encouraged to cultivate relationships with people, and rightly so,” she says. “But people court me as though I am the wealthy person—a major gift donor. For me cultivation opportunities need to be informative and illustrate the program above all. What is most useful for me is meeting people to learn about the work they do, and ideally to meet the people who are being served by the funding. I am, as they are, a professional at what I am doing. Information, then, is much appreciated.”

Recognition counts. “Foundations like to be thanked.” Margolin says, recounting the wisdom of a foundation leader that has stuck with her. Recognize your funder publicly and mention them in meetings, she says. “People who enter this field want to make organizations better and so they deserved to be thanked, and appreciate being thanked, for what they do.”

Judith Margolin is vice president for planning and evaluation at the Foundation Center. She has devoted most of her career to foundations and philanthropy. She is the author of several books, including The Individual’s Guide to Grants and Financing a College Education and has served as editor of multiple editions of the Center’s monographs, including Foundation Fundamentals, Guide to Proposal Writing, and The Grantseeker’s Guide to Winning Proposals. 

Frances Phillips is program director for the arts and The Creative Work Fund at the Walter and Elise Haas Fund in San Francisco. She has worked at the Fund for 14 years. Phillips serves on the boards of the California Alliance for Arts Education, Community Initiatives, Grantmakers in the Arts, and Great Nonprofits; and she is co-editor of the Grantmakers in the Arts Reader. With her husband, Stan Hutton, she co-authored The Nonprofit Kit for Dummies—a new edition of which is forthcoming in December.

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