How To Build Healthy Relationships With Funders

In previous posts, we’ve reviewed best practices regarding grantwriting and communicating your story to funders. We’ve even talked about the importance of third-party validation. Another key to success is understanding how to build stronger relationships with funders. Funders come in many types, but the two main categories that we’ll review in this article are individual donors and program officers.

Donors are individuals who give funds to help your organization achieve its mission! Program/Grant Administrators/Officers are employees of institutions and represent the foundations’ interest. Typically, they are individuals who have extensive knowledge in the field of interest and carry a portfolio of grantees of which they advise and advocate for within their greater institutions.

So now that we understand the difference between the two, what’s the magic secret to receiving sustainable funding from program officers?

It boils down to two things: trust and engagement. 

There’s no real sorcery involved, but there are a few ‘magic’ truths in fundraising. Some include: those who don’t ask don’t receive (a squeaky wheel gets the oil sort of ideology); and if a program officer wouldn’t trust you with their own money, they’re probably not going to trust you with their foundation’s money either.

Fundraising success is usually strengthened by two things: strong data and strong relationships. Relationship building in particular is fundamental. Yes, the collateral you provide to funders matter. The strength of your proposal, and the alignment of your work as it relates to the funder’s vision, matters. Your reputation in the community matters. AND one big indicator of long-term sustainable funding is the relationship you build with your program officer as an extension of the foundation. Relationships matter. And all of this brings us back to understanding how to build trust and drive engagement.

Let’s start with engagement.

There’s a working theory in fundraising called the ‘rule of 7’. Simple put, expert fundraisers (yours included) believe that you need seven quality touch points between requesting gifts. The majority of these engagement touch points should be thank yours and updates. This practice doesn’t just go for individual donors, it also is helpful for foundation program officers as well.

An example of engagement timeline which may work for you could include:

  1. Personal Thank You!
    Every donor, program officer and/or stakeholder who facilitates resources should receive a personalized thank you. This is different from a tax acknowledgement receipt of which they should receive within 48 hours of the donation. The initial thank you can come after a donation if they’re a current donor, or after the initial meeting if they are a prospective donor.
  2. Invitation to Program or Event
    Even in the digital age we can cultivate relationships! Think of a way to showcase your programs beyond the written word. If your organization doesn’t have community events or ways to observe programs/services, think about a meet and greet with key staff. Often foundation representatives like to engage with individuals beyond development staff; so a ‘fireside’ chat with the Executive Director or a more formal briefing with programming staff is a great engagement moment. Two weeks after the first touchpoint, think about requesting a future meeting (maybe two weeks from then as well). This ensures that you aren’t letting more than 30 days pass between engagement moments. 
  3. Personalized Updates
    Follow-up after every engagement with a thank you! And beyond thank yous, it’s helpful to sometimes just send an update without any meeting requests or heavy collateral. Light moments are key. It can be as simple as an email saying “I was just thinking about [reference from the last meeting] and was so surprised about [something poignant]. Just letting you know you were on my mind, speak soon!” Even if the donor or program officer doesn’t respond, they know you were thinking about them, and it creates a moment for future dialogue/follow-up. 
  4. Collateral Sharing 
    Before making your next (or first) funding request share collateral that serves as a proof point for your impact. This could be an annual report, a third-party evaluation, recognition that you were rated highly on a charity watch-dog site, or received a community award…any collateral or proof point of your success. 
  5. Special Organization Outreach
    This can be an extension of the quarterly newsletter your organization sends out, or themed holiday emails that the rest of your list gets, anything that shows that your organization actively communicates with its constituency is good to highlight. This doesn’t need to be hyper personalized, but be mindful about the amount of emails your sending donors and program officers if you do have a general lister. You don’t want to inundate inboxes. Audience types/relationships should dictate the level of automated emails someone receives. 
  6. Distribute Great Engagement Moments (GEMs)
    GEMs are key highlights that show the impact of your program and services. For example, if you are a adoption service agency and a child is doing amazingly well in their new home sending over a photo with a small note from the child is a great touchpoint. Work with your organization’s program staff to ensure that they are constantly on the lookout for GEMs. This increases the culture of fundraising that your staff maintain; the more program staff feel invested in the fundraising success of the organization the more likely they are to track and send GEMs
  7. Alignment Meeting 
    Ahead of your formal request for funding, you should have another meeting that ensures an alignment between your organization’s priorities and the program officer’s portfolio/interest for the upcoming year. Use this meeting as a way to update the officer, determine potential timelines and refine the scope of your proposal ahead of your official submission. 

When there is an alignment in the scope of the person giving funds with the impact of the nonprofit potentially receiving funds, often what puts you in a more competitive place is a deeper connection. Program officers want nonprofits to succeed. Remember, that a foundation’s scope of work is to provide funding for aligned organizations. YOU want to make sure that your positioning yourself as an aligned organization. There is nothing better than having a champion in your corner and the best funding relationships feel like partnerships rooted in trust. 

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