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Insider View: Cultivation from a Grantmaker's Perspective

When I started my role as a Program Officer at the Michigan Women's Foundation 15 years ago, I was surprised by two things. I was shocked by the significant differences in how organizations would approach outreach to the foundation. It differed greatly. Second, I was astonished by the many different ways in which colleagues at other foundations approached and accepted cultivation outreach by potential grantmakers. I went into the role with the expectation that—of course—all potential grantees would want to speak with a potential grantmaker before they applied. I was continually surprised by how frequently that was not the case. 

I started my career in philanthropy on the individual donor and special event side in high school and college. I think those initial experiences gave me a good understanding of how important relationships and cultivation are in our industry. While the number of published pieces about grantmaking and cultivation is increasing, the majority of articles focus on tips and best practices for individual fundraising. However, some of the same rules apply to grantmakers.
Below are my four insider tips on grantmaker cultivation, based on my years as a Program Officer.
  1. Not all grantmakers are the same. Not all grantmaking organizations have the preference or potentially the capacity to have any conversations or allow for any cultivation engagement before making a grant award.
  1. Look for clues on your cultivation options. Effective cultivation of grantmakers means looking for direct and indirect statements that indicate the grantmakers' preference for communication and, therefore, your cultivation options. A direct clue that there is capacity for communication is a grantmaker encouraging you to phone before applying. An indirect clue there is not the capacity for communication is not listing any staff names or titles on the website and only providing a general info email address. Another indirect clue for where you may have success with cultivation efforts is in the board list for a grantmaker. Finding a connection between a potential grantmakers board and your staff and board leadership can be the way that a cultivation conversation begins.
  1. Don't argue with grantmakers. This may sound obvious, but based on experience it is not. If you are in dialogue with a grantmaker to see if your program or project is a competitive fit for their priorities in the next cycle, you need to listen to their advice. If a grantmaker tells you that your program is not a good fit, nothing you do to bend the ask will make it a great fit. Do not proceed with the proposal. It could be considered a passive argument with a grantmaker if despite their advice, your still submit a proposal, indicating that perhaps you know best. The important lesson is that it saves you and the grantmaker time when you listen and leaves room for potential relationships.
  1. Be direct. When you encounter a grantmaker that does have the capacity or preference for communication with potential grantees, go into any interaction with a plan for the engagement. In the first engagement, the plan should be to assess if you are indeed a good fit with their priorities. Avoid sharing everything about your history, mission, and programs and then asking the grantmaker if they think you are a good fit. Rather, you should give them a quick elevator pitch about your organization's mission, vision, and priorities. Then, you should directly explain why, based on your research, you believe you are a good fit with their grantmaking priorities. You have given the grantmaker direct information to react to and are therefore more likely to gain their respect. You also get an answer that best directs your next steps.
As Heather Stombaugh, CFRE, GPC, says so well, “People Give to People, Not Proposals®.” As you begin digging in on your next potential grantmaker relationship, ask yourself what you can do to cultivate a relationship with the people at the grantmaking organization.
Calling all current and former program officers! Do you have any insider tips you would add to this list?
Diane H. Leonard, GPC is the President of DH Leonard Consulting & Grant Writing Services, LLC based in Clayton, NY and loves writing and talking about grants, running, coffee, and the 1000 Islands.



By: Gail McGlothin
On: 03/07/2017 16:32:28
Thank you for that insight. I have been in training after training where the instructor insists that every organization applying for a grant must have a relationship with the grantor with no explanation of how to make that happen. I have been following your advice for years and found it to be exactly what has worked for me. I always ask for a program officer and, no matter to who I am speaking, ask if they have about 15 minutes for a conversation. This is good advice!

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