What I Learned as a Funder: Frank Tips for Nonprofits

Funders and nonprofits should keep sight of the fact that human beings are on the other side of the table. Social sector work is about people.

What I Learned as a Funder: Frank Tips for Nonprofits
9 mins read

Social sector work is about people and relationships. That includes fundraising.

Over decades in the social sector, I spent countless hours in the grant-seeking trenches and saw my share of things that left me wondering whether to laugh or cry. But then I became a foundation funder and encountered a prospective grantee’s “toxic diaper excuse” (more on that later), which truly left my head shaking.

Reflecting on my experiences, I am aware of how deeply human this work is, and how nonprofits can be more successful in building relationships with funders if they step away from notions of distance and power differentials and view those across the table and reading their grants more as, well, people.

I could write quite a few posts to give funders a pointed set of “do’s” and “don’ts,” but for now, here’s a frank list of things I learned as a funder that I wish I understood better when I was fundraising from foundations:

Tell the Funder What You Actually Do

It’s lovely to hear that you transform the trajectory for underserved youth so they can live their dreams. The pictures of the graduation caps flying through the air are inspiring. But honestly, if the funder has to ask you 10 minutes into a meeting, or read to the bottom of page two of your application, or hunt and peck all over your website to figure out that you provide weekly afterschool math tutoring for middle schoolers, then you are unlikely to get funded.

Funders are very busy for the most part, so you need to state up front exactly what you’re doing to meet mission. Lay out clearly and concisely what you do, how you do it, why it matters, and why it’s a fit for the funder in front of you. Don’t make the funder translate jargon or guess what you do and how you differ from other programs in your space. Tell the funder what you do in the same way you’d explain it to your neighbor, even if they’re an expert in the space.

Help Funders Help You

Most of us do this work because we love it and we’re driven to leave this world better than we found it. Funders want our grantees and other nonprofits to succeed. So, find funder allies and then listen carefully to their suggestions and be sure to take advantage of offers to be helpful beyond a grant. They may have expertise, insight, and social capital you can use to be more successful. The value doesn’t always correlate to the size of the grant or the funder, either.

I found it remarkable that many nonprofits and grantees miss out on useful opportunities because they are solely focused on just getting the money versus building a relationship; as a result they failed to keep me in the loop after the grant and follow up on ideas for outreach partners or ways to be more strategic.

On the other hand, a few had unrealistically high expectations of how much time I could spend with them, so keep sensitivity and balance in mind.

Sometimes You Have to Take “No” For an Answer

It shocked me to see how many nonprofits argued with me over email after I gave a detailed account of why the organization was not a fit with our funding priorities. It’s great to ask why you received a “no” so you can learn and find a better match, or possibly circle back in the future with a more effective request, but it’s never productive to tell a funder how wrong they are in applying their guidelines to your organization.

Just as your nonprofit has a mission and focus and can’t do everything, so do foundations. Grantors are people, and we don’t enjoy saying no, but often we have to. It doesn’t help your cause if the funder needs to take time from working with grantees to respond multiple times to tell you why your program isn’t a fit. It’s better to find the good fits—those more likely to sustain funding and provide useful auxiliary support and momentum to your organization.

Be Candid About Events

There’s often unintended lack of clarity about what you really want when you invite your funders to attend your gala, appreciation breakfast, reception, or other event, and how much you expect them to pay. My inbox exploded every week with invitations to grantee events.

As a funder at a small foundation, it would’ve been physically impossible to go to all of them, and attending even most would risk certain divorce and the ire of my children! But more to the point, I didn’t have the budget to pay for tickets or underwrite all these events.

Funders need to know, honestly, if their presence at an event is important—whether to signal support for your organization to others, hear a live presentation in person, or fill a table that would otherwise be unfilled. Is the invitation just a show of courtesy and gratitude? If it really doesn’t matter very much to you if a particular funder attends (perhaps because you have limited space and would rather sell tickets to prospects), I promise you that they won’t feel badly about not going, so just let them know.

But if it’s actually quite important to you that the funder attends, let them know that, too. And make it clear whether you’re expecting the funder to pay for a ticket, a table, or more, or whether you’re expecting to comp them. Talking about money is awkward, but not talking about it may create even more discomfort later.

And keep in mind that most funders would vastly prefer visiting a program in the field over going to an event, as the connection and stewardship is more meaningful at a site visit.

Remember That We’re All Busy

Please don’t pull a no-call, no-show, or a last-minute cancellation, especially if you’ve reached out to the funder. This happens more than it should. Perhaps the most bizarre time-waster and relationship-killer I experienced as a funder was when I scheduled a call with a remarkably persistent nonprofit leader after his umpteenth request.

We had spoken at length a year before, but I had some serious concerns about the organization’s model and the ED’s maturity. He kept pinging me throughout the year, and I agreed to speak with him again since he said his model had changed. With some difficulty, I found a good time to make the call between meetings, only to reach the ED’s wife, who told me her husband was busy and gave no inkling of how long I should wait to hear from him. Days later, he finally wrote me an email to explain that he had been dealing with such a messy diaper situation that he couldn’t talk.

As a mom myself, I remember some nasty times at the changing table, too. If he had called me right back, we could have had a laugh about it. But the issue wasn’t the diaper. Suffice it to say, that organization did not make it to my grantee list and I never scheduled another call with him.

Bottom line: social sector work is about people and relationships. If funders and nonprofits keep sight of the fact that those on the other side of the table are human beings, too, the work of funding social change might be significantly more productive…even when facing exploding diapers.

About the Author

Catherine Crystal Foster leads Give Local Silicon Valley, a new venture that powers local philanthropy to make Silicon Valley a better place for all of us. She recently served as Executive Director of the Westly Foundation, and before that, as Executive Director of the Peninsula College Fund. Previously, she led a consulting practice for nonprofits and foundations. Catherine authored the District of Columbia’s welfare reform legislation, worked as a public interest lawyer, and directed a children’s advocacy program. A nonprofit board member and advisor, Catherine is also an active volunteer.

Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.

2 thoughts on “What I Learned as a Funder: Frank Tips for Nonprofits

  1. This is terrific – thank you for validating!
    I would love to see the same piece from the other side – What I Learned (about funders) as a Nonprofit ED.
    What would they tell funders about how to act and interact and build relationships?

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