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Grantmaker Relationships Simplified

When it comes to forming respectful, professional relationships with grantmakers, at least two questions come to the minds of many grantseekers. The first is how to bridge the perceived power differential or social distance.  The second is how to get time with a grantmaker, given that many other grantseekers are also attempting the same thing.


For expert opinion on these questions, I contacted three grantmakers. A big thank you to Lori Kuhn, Executive Director of the Morgan Family Foundation, Kathy Grochow, Director of Community Programs at the Central Minnesota Community Foundation, and Chris Fastner, Senior Program Manager for Nonprofit Development at the Initiative Foundation, for sharing their insights. 

Let's look at the first question, regarding the power differential. Grantseekers sometimes attempt to solve it by avoiding it – making no contact at all, or swinging to the opposite extreme, by name dropping or brown nosing. (Barely exaggerated examples: “my brother's sister-in-law attended the same high school as your board chair,” or responding to every grantmaker comment with, “that's brilliant!”)  Neither extreme is productive. Kuhn says, “Connect authentically with a grantmaker, on a fundamental human level.” 
Grochow says that grantseekers need not guess whether forming a relationship is appropriate. “The appropriate level of a relationship with a grantmaker lies within the application guidelines put forth by a grantmaker. If a grantmaker invites the opportunity to discuss projects prior to submission of the grant, then it should be considered a part of the process and an opportunity to build a relationship.” 
Fastner assures grantseekers, “Most program officers I know would prefer to set you on the right path before you, as a grant writer, put effort and time into an application or LOI, whether that's telling you the project for which you're applying is not a good fit or reminding you what points to emphasize in your submission.” 
Let's now look into getting time with a grantmaker. Before you make your move, pause and reflect that grantmakers are not omniscient.  When you call or send an email, the grantmaker does not know if you are aware of the foundation's grant making process or funding priorities. He or she may not know much about your organization, or the community problem you are attempting to solve. Nor does he or she know if you are grateful for or even aware of their past grant support. Furthermore, a grantmaker does not know why you are reaching out unless you tell them. To quickly get past time-wasting preliminaries, tell a grantmaker these things in your first contact, in an organized and concise way. That will signal to the grantmaker that you won't suck their time like a big black hole.  “Make clear what your purpose for the contact is – are you asking for a meeting?  To review a concept paper? Asking for the next due date?”  Then, “Allow a reasonable amount of time for a thoughtful response,” says Kuhn.

What if you reach out and don't get an answer at all? Does that mean, “go away?” “Don't be afraid to reach out a couple of times if at first you don't succeed (it's possible your email ended up in the spam folder) but use discretion if you seem to not be getting a response,” advises Fastner.
In a nutshell:  connect with grantmakers as fellow human beings, and make efficient use of their time. Sounds so simple, so obvious! 
What tips do you have for forming productive relationships with grantmakers?

Diane Calabria GPC is on the development team at True Friends, a nonprofit that provides life-changing experiences for children and adults with disabilities. 

GPC Competencies:  08. Funder Relationships


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