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Stop Chasing the Unicorn: Developing Real and Lasting Relationships with Grantmakers

Long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away…AKA my first three to four years as a grant professional, I would cower behind my desk, pushing others such as my supervisor, board members, executive directors, ANYONE else, to get out there and connect with foundations. And in many cases, that board member to trustee connection, or that Executive Director to Executive Director coffee were excellent ways to foster meaningful connection between grant makers and grant seekers.


I held back because, as a grade A introvert, I was afraid of saying the wrong thing, being too pushy, being asked a question I couldn't answer, or being ignored and/or ridiculed. In other words, because I didn't know how to conduct the perfect donor interaction, I didn't try at all. I thought there was some sparkly unicorn of a speech or email that I had to perform to be worthy. In the meantime, I plugged away striving to create compelling, successful grants on deadline, and told myself it was enough.
As I gained more experience, I realized certain career paths like senior writer, or development director could be mine. But they required more interaction with donors, employees, board members, and volunteers.  Actively participating in the Georgia chapter of the GPA was key to developing more self confidence. One of the first major projects I took on was to recruit foundation program officers and other speakers for an extended Meet the Funders Panel about 10 years ago.
Calling these foundation staffers on behalf of GGPA made it much less threatening. I wasn't calling to ask for another grant or to discuss future funding possibilities—it was a professional development opportunity for me AND for those who participated. The panel's success inspired me to help coordinate and moderate four more panels at regional grants conferences and other events. And in the process, I developed authentic professional relationships with several program officers and board members from family foundations, bank-managed foundations, and others.
When I stopped sweating it about developing the perfect script for a phone call, or creating a flawless email extolling all the wonderful selling points of funding my employer's nonprofit, I found that making short, more frequent contact seemed to work for them and for me.
Full disclosure: sometimes I would leave messages between 6-7 p.m. so that program officers would hear from me, but also so I wouldn't have to actually talk “live.”  #introvertlife. This worked best for thanking foundation officers, board members and staff, and to alert them to a forthcoming email with details about an invitation.
Another best practice for grant development also conveniently served as another way for me to interact more comfortably with foundation staff—the (often-dreaded) technical trainings offered by funders at the launch of each new grant cycle. Whether on site or through a webinar, technical assistance trainings gave me a chance to interact in the moment, and more importantly, in the days afterwards. Reasonable, well-timed emails during a long and complex grant cycle and beyond helped so much to create an atmosphere of connection. This helped me overcome that “us versus them” feeling for many, but unfortunately not all, foundations.
Instead of chasing the elusive unicorn of perfection in donor relations, l learned to be myself, communicate authentically, and let the working relationships develop naturally with those grant makers open to the experience. This helped me personally and professionally in my career growth and in my personal confidence to take on new things.
What has worked for you in establishing and maintaining strong ties with your foundation funders?
Kimberly Hays de Muga, GPC, cohosts the Fundraising HayDay podcast, is a national trainer in grant writing and grant management and a Senior Consultant with Encore Nonprofit Solutions.  When she's not working with nonprofits and those who love them, she writes Young Adult fiction and indulges her tea snobbery.

GPC Competency #1: Knowledge of how to research, identify, and match funding resources to meet specific needs



By: Margit Brazda Poirier
On: 10/08/2019 16:17:28
Great points Kimberly! Having BEEN a funder, and now a grant professional, I find that having conversations that do no result in an "ask" are important. Just authentic discussions about important community issues...
By: Andrea Crawford
On: 10/08/2019 18:02:12
This is excellent, Kimberly - thank you! I would also add that, if during those cultivation calls you do get asked a question and don't know the answer, it always works to say, "I don't know," and follow-up with another call or email once you do have the answer. In this case, the more contact the better. :o)
By: Julieta Varron
On: 10/09/2019 09:47:09
Good article. Thank you for the inspiring anecdote.
By: Kimberly Hays de Muga
On: 10/09/2019 16:34:38
Margit, so good to hear from "the other side of the desk." Glad it made sense for you too. Hope to see you soon in D.C.
By: Kimberly Hays de Muga
On: 10/09/2019 16:36:25
Thank you Andrea! I'm glad you enjoyed the post, and I wholeheartedly agree with you that being authentic in what you don't know and then following up is a winning strategy.
By: Kimberly Hays
On: 10/09/2019 16:37:31
You're welcome Julieta! I'm glad you enjoyed it.
By: Joan Drebing
On: 10/10/2019 12:08:24
This is a great post. There aren't that many articles about cultivating these relationships, especially if you are more of an introvert. Sounds like you created great strategies that worked well for you! Thanks for sharing your experience.

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