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Foundation Relations: Don't Let the Big Table Stand in Your Way

By Derrick Feldmann

eWire contributing writer Derrick Feldmann shares his experiences working with nonprofits and foundations and offers some advice on how to build an authentic relationship, including some helpful do’s and don’ts.

(May 5, 2009) Recently, I had the opportunity to visit a local family foundation on behalf of a client. As part of an assessment of the client’s relationships and its impact on the community, we were meeting with a number of corporations, foundations and individuals that support our client. In the course of those meetings, we were asking a series of questions about the connection between the organization and its funders. These questions ranged from, “How many times do you hear from the organization?” to “What are the conversations about?” 

During this particular meeting, the foundation’s head of grantmaking – who I’ll call “Paul” – made comments that spoke volumes about the foundation’s relationship with our client.

First, Paul described an event he had attended that was hosted by our client. At the event, several board members approached him to thank him for the recent grant. While Paul appreciated the gesture, he was troubled by the conversations. It was clear that the board members did not know the extent of the grant or, if they did, each of them had a different vision of its outcome.

As the conversation continued, Paul also mentioned meetings he had had with our client’s CEO and V.P. of Development. The meetings were nice enough, he said, but every time they came in, it seemed like there was this big division – a wedge if you will – between him and them. The conversations were superficial, never relating to the real work of the organization, its challenges, its current financial footing, etc. As they talked, Paul said, the conference table that separated them seemed to get bigger and bigger.

What did we see in these stories? A lot of what Paul felt: That the relationship between his foundation and our client was not one built on authenticity and trust. To Paul, it had begun to feel simply transactional.

So what kind of relationship should you have with foundations? 

To understand this, you first should put yourself in a grantmaker’s shoes. They’re inundated with requests – not only for money, but also for meetings, appointments and partnerships. They’re usually told so many “great” things about an organization that they have a hard time seeing the truth through the murky waters of self-promotion. Perhaps most importantly, foundation executives work first and foremost to meet expectations set forth by the original donors and board of directors. This means that they’re not trying to assess whether your organization is worthwhile – they assume it is. But they are trying to understand how your organization aligns with such expectations and whether it has the ability to achieve promised outcomes.

Now consider the following simple steps to deepen your relationships with foundations.

Communicate well

Remember, foundation executives receive more email and mail than you would ever want. So, when initially visiting with foundations, ask your program officers how they like to receive communications. Do they prefer email or mail?  Send quarterly updates that talk about the recent impact of grants and relevant organizational changes and news. Do not send blanket communication pieces. Connect what you are doing with the interests of the foundation.

Make meetings about more than ‘the ask’

If you’re smart, you want your relationship to be about more than money—so make your meetings about more than money. Meet occasionally to discuss the work of your organization and the grant while also discussing challenges you face or changes that are occurring.  Be realistic and honest to ensure that the foundation has a good understanding of your organization’s health. Remember, foundations support organizations that can meet projected outcomes and have impact. Give them reason to believe you can.

Build internal awareness

Make sure your board and staff are aware of the conversations and collaborations you have with foundations. Don’t let them get caught off guard when they run into a leader or staff person from a foundation that supports you.

Let your work speak for itself

Show the foundation what you do, how you do it and what makes you unique in the community. They’re interested in the people you serve; that’s who they’re really investing in. And remember: If you send them late reports, poorly written materials and other evidence of sloppiness, your work will speak for itself – and for you. Trust me: It makes it hard for a foundation to invest and believe in the future of an organization when basic tasks are not executed well.

So, the next time you pick up that phone, think about Paul’s experiences as a foundation program officer. Do you want to just be another organization asking for money?  Or would you rather be an organization with a relationship that includes monetary support?

Derrick Feldmann is CEO of Achieve, an Indianapolis-based consulting firm serving the needs of small to medium-sized nonprofit organizations through personal consultation and online philanthropic resources.

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