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Building Relationships with Grantmakers

Building good relationships with grantmakers has many benefits: you can obtain inside information; the staff member can advocate for your proposal; she may offer to review it before you send it; and you have a chance with some foundations that preclude unsolicited applications based on her recommendation of your organization.
Contacting a grantmaker without having researched it wastes time and effort and can make you seem unprofessional. Foundations keep a record of these contacts; furthermore, they communicate with each other.
The first step in finding grantmakers that may be interested in supporting your project/organization is to research funders that share your goals. 

The Foundation Center, the primary source of reliable information on funders, publishes the Foundation Directory, which contains detailed information on almost all foundations. It is available for free at the Center's Funding Information Network partners and public libraries. 
After you have a list of preliminary prospects, look deeper at each one. The form 990 tax returns will provide you with a list of all grants made in a given year. Go back several years to see the patterns. If the foundation makes grants to the same organizations every year, move on. However, if it varies its grantmaking, has an interest in your field, and makes grants in your geographic area and to groups similar to yours, there's hope.
Learn more about a foundation by reviewing its website and published materials; news sources, such as Philanthropy News Digest, local media, and business journals; and Internet search results.
Your research should provide you with a list of foundations that make grants in areas related to your work, as well as how to apply to them. The more you know about your prospect, the better you can tailor your request to their interests.
Once you have identified and researched foundations that have a mutual mission with yours, the next step is to find the connections between the target grantmakers and your organization. Review their Board members' bios and resumes by conducting Internet searches and looking at Who's Who and other directories. Check the Foundation Directory Online to identify other foundation Boards on which trustees serve, and GuideStar for their memberships on nonprofit Boards.
Prepare a list of foundation trustees and staff, along with their affiliations. Ask your Board members, key donors, volunteers and staff, influential supporters, and the people you serve, if appropriate, if they know anyone on the list and would make introductions. See if the people they know will ask the foundations if they would be willing to look at a proposal from your organization.
If nobody knows anyone, dig deeper to find out where the trustees spend their time. Get involved in your local community, network, and attend Chamber of Commerce meetings and other business events. Go to nonprofit and grantmaker conferences. Although not appropriate to solicit there, you may be able to present at a workshop/panel and talk to program officers. If you travel out of town, see if you can set up meetings with potential funders in that area.
Follow up with materials and information that you think they might be interested in. Include a brief personal note. Get their business cards and start to develop the relationship. Add the foundation to your mailing list. Connect on LinkedIn and Twitter. Invite staff for a site visit, particularly if you can give them a view of programs in action.
If a foundation has not stated a preference for an initial approach, it is generally safe to call. Be ready with your talking points. Your research will enable you to ask more in-depth and detailed questions.  Good luck!
This article was adapted from a longer one by the same name that appeared in the January/February 2015 Grassroots Fundraising Journal. Sheryl A. Kaplan is a national Grants Consultant based in Los Angeles. She can be reached at or