Development Planning from Scratch – Foundation Funders

Development Planning from Scratch – Foundation Funders

I’ve often thought that it would be a lot more fun to be a grant maker than a grant seeker. That may be true for a while, but let’s not get carried away with envy. I’ve talked with grantmakers who are overwhelmed with grant requests. For every $1 worth of grant they are able to make, there get anywhere from $2 to $10 worth of request. It may very well be that some of the rejections are made due to technical problems with the grant proposal or projects that lie outside the foundation’s priority focus areas. But many – too many – worthy projects are not funded simply because the foundation does not have enough money to fund all the worthy projects.

How hard would that be? If you’ve ever hired someone and made the rejection calls first, you know what I mean.

There are several important things to keep in mind when writing grants proposals to foundations:

  • Many foundations regularly go through their own strategic planning processes. Their mission might stay relatively constant, but their granting priorities change as the world changes and as new people come onto their boards.
  • Most foundations want to help you write an appropriate proposal. They publish guidelines, deadlines, grant evaluation procedures, areas of emphasis and program priority, range of grants made, and even sample grants from previous years. It’s all out there for you to easily find.
  • Most foundations do not want to be “the funder” of a specific program or project. They might help you get started. They might provide bridge funding. They might be interested in being one of many funders. But as a general statement, grantmakers are looking for projects they can help with over a short period of time and then move on.
  • Most foundations are as interested in whether you learned something as they are that you succeeded.
  • Many foundations will allow up to 20% of the grant money to be used for administration, understanding that it costs the organization money to draft, receive, administer, and report on the grant money.

So with these realities in mind, here are some tips for your planning:

First – do your homework! Set aside a week or so, early in the year to devote to foundation research. (This lends itself to an intern project.)

  • Start with a Foundation Directory. (You can usually find one at a library, but you might have to go to a university library.) There will be a big one with large national foundations, and a smaller one that covers just your state and includes all the much smaller family foundations, trusts, and community funds. Photocopy as much as you can and start a paper file for each foundation you find.
  • Record and save the foundation’s guideline for submitting proposals, deadlines and sequence of submissions needed, board trustee names, and names of key personnel.
  • Visit each foundation’s website. Verify the information you think you already know and record contact information for grant officers and other key personnel.
  • Share the list of foundation trustees and key personnel with your board members. I usually just list the names in alpha order without indicating their affiliation with a particular foundation or trust. Then I ask board members to circle anyone they know personally.
  • Request a copy of the most recent Annual report.
  • Pay special attention to the organizations that have received grants from these foundations. Take a look at those organizations and look for who else funds them. You might find that several funders like to work together.
  • Call the grant officer, or see if s/he will accept a meeting. Keep the appointment, being prepared to describe your best guess as to a program or project in which they might be interested. Follow their advice!
  • Keep good notes and keep good files.

Second, get real about how many proposals you can handle in a year. Ten would be a lot for many organizations! Map their deadlines onto your master calendar, and build in enough time to get the proposal written. Keep in mind that this task can be shared. It is often more efficient for a program person to write the actual grant, while the fundraising person keeps track of deadlines, filing procedures and so on.

Get real about your chances with each proposal as well. A $10,000 grant request from a foundation that has made grants every year for some time and who invited this one might warrant a 90% (never 100%!). A proposal to a new foundation might only warrant a 10 or 20%. Use the percentages to forecast income from foundations for the year.

Third, take some risks, but not too many. Definitely cover the bases with foundations with whom you have built a relationship. But save some room to venture out and get to know some new ones every year as well. Remember that foundation trustees and staff are people, and many of them know each other. If you are hitting home runs with every grant request, you are probably not taking enough risks. (And if you’re completely striking out every year, there are probably better things to do with your time!)

Fourth, as a general statement, foundations won’t be too excited to support operations or land acquisition over a long period of time. In both cases, it begins to feel endless – not innovative, not exciting. I remember one TNC project that we were raising money for every year for decades – tract by tract. It takes a special funder to understand that aspect of the business. Instead, look for opportunities to cast operations and land acquisition as research, environmental education, access to recreation, quality of life, and so on. Project funding a) creates something that wasn’t there before, b) eliminates something that was, or c) moves a needle somewhere somehow. Grant requests that can be cast in one of those three ways will find some traction.

One more thing about foundations: Grant money is “soft” money. Staff members whose salaries are supported by soft money are limited-term employees almost by definition. They only have a job as long as the grant money holds up, or until the organization begins to support them with more sustainable money. They deserve to be told that.

Each foundation will have its own line on your master spreadsheet. Use new columns to record the work involved and any submission deadlines.





Photo by Piotr Laskawski courtesy of

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The Development Planning Sequence so far:

The BIG Picture


Soliciting the Board

Cultivating the Board

Cultivating Top 100 Donors

Annual Giving Leaders

Corporate and Foundation versus Individual Donors

Corporate Funders


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Fundraiser’s Almanac
Here’s what I’ve been thinking about for October. What are YOU thinking about?


Donor Appreciation Events

For a significant number of organizations, donors giving at least $1,000 as their membership gift account for less than 10% of the donor base and more than 60% of the operations funding. Time to say THANK YOU! Time to get the most out of your appreciation events!


Getting that First Fall Appeal Letter to the Post Office

Mailing this early means that you can get a reminder letter out before Thanksgiving, and if you are inclined to send out a third letter, you will still have time to drop it before Christmas. BUT, If you will be mailing after October 20 or so, know that your results will be somewhat affected by the election mail. Mailings dropped after November 15 will have better results that mailings dropped between October 20 and the election.


Acknowledging Non-Cash Donations

I am NOT a tax advisor, and I am NOT an attorney. However, with that critical disclaimer:

Acknowledge any gift with a sincere statement of appreciation for what was actually given. For example,

  • Thank you very much for your gift of $35.
  • Thank you very much for your gift of 25 shares of XYZ stock.
  • Thank you very much for donating your 4-wheel-drive truck.
  • Thank you very much for volunteering to help us with the mailing last Saturday.
  • Thank you for donating a homemade meal for 6-8 people for the auction.


Taking Stock and Beginning to Plan for Next Year

Given what you know right now about what foundations, corporations, and individuals have committed, and what you know right now about what requests are still out there, and what you know right now about the requests you will yet write before 12/31, can you still project meeting your fundraising goals and getting to each of the budget numbers? If not, where will each number end up? If you wait until December 20th to figure out that you’re going to be short – it’s too late. Forewarned is forearmed.



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