Building Strong and Honest Relationships with Grantmakers

Blessed are the fundraisers for they shall inherit the New Year’s funding goals.

Whether your organization operates on a calendar or fiscal year, when the year-end books close, you have either met, exceeded, or missed your funding goals. Instead of celebrations, there is no rest for the weary because you again start the never-ending cycle of fundraising.

A good fundraiser has tough skin that tolerates rejection, a lot of faith in the process and the gift of prophesy that your funding forecasts are accurate.  Mark Twain must have been describing fundraising when he said, “The art of prophecy is very difficult, especially with respect to the future.” You can never predict the future until the money is in the bank.

Of the $390 billion in philanthropic contributions last year in the United States, fifteen percent or $59.28 billion came from foundations according to Giving USA.  This is a small piece of the pie but there are many generous independent, corporate and community foundations in North Carolina that make a huge difference in the nonprofit sector. Foundations are grantmaking organizations, and they are only successful when their nonprofit partners succeed.

Cultivating potential foundation relationships requires trust and respect from both parties. It is easy to forget that grantmakers are nonprofits with missions, guidelines, budgets, deadlines, and boards who expect accountability. As Bill Gates once said, “Giving money away is harder than making it.” Grantmakers, on average, reject ten times the number of grants they approve. Foundations board members want impact from the grants they make to their nonprofit partners, and they expect to see a return on investment.  

The old saying that if you have met one foundation you have met one foundation rings true.  Every foundation is different and is looking for different outcomes. The grant seeker’s job starts with research to understand the foundation’s giving history, identifying their board members, examining their assets, reviewing their websites for current interests and evaluating multiple years of their 990 Annual Reports. Once you know more about their giving, then determine what information to provide them; what they want and in what form they want it.  Do they want a letter of inquiry, a three-page proposal or a full application?  Most foundations don’t have paid staff and decisions are made by volunteer board members. It is common not receive a response even if you submit a proposal. Whenever possible meet with the staff or board members to glean information about their interests and make a strong case for support.

Funders are looking for nonprofits that excite them with innovative programs and solutions that work. Be honest and educate them about lessons learned from your work. Submit proposals with realistic and measurable goals and outcomes. Once funded, send regular updates on the program and invite them to visit and meet the staff and clients.

Building relationships with a funder takes time.  Donors want to invest in organizations and people they know, and they can trust.  Like any investor, they want assurance your board and staff provide leadership, accountability and oversight. Funders share the satisfaction of the nonprofit partners who successfully affect change in their communities and are grateful to get some of the credit.

It is often difficult, but be honest with your funder, especially if a program is not working.  Community problems are complicated, and there will be failures. Allow the funder to learn the lessons from both your successes and failures.  

Building strong relationships with your funders will result in financial support for your organization, and can also can build meaningful friendships and recognition that together you have made a difference.  Never underestimate the value these relationships can have in expanding your network of other funders.  

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