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Spend Your Time Wisely to Get More Foundation Funding

Marilyn Hoyt

Marilyn Hoyt is active nationally and internationally as a teacher, writer, and consultant. Her past work includes 20 years raising over $200 million as a founding staff member of the New York Hall of Science. She has served as both a grantmaker and fundraising consultant, and she contributed to Foundation Center's book, After the Grant. Later this fall she will be speaking on trends in international funding in Kazakhstan and Russia.

Foundations are back! In just the last year, more than 18,000 new foundations have been incorporated, and there are now nearly 140,000 across the country. 

In addition, existing foundations are smart investors. Their endowments are growing with the market. Our nonprofit sector receives 5 percent of these increased endowments every year in foundation grants. 

That said, nonprofits often don’t have the staff and time to balance building relationships, preparing proposals, and doing all that is required to make the most of this opportunity. A major study conducted by Crain’s New York Business and the Association of Fundraising Professionals of New York City this past spring reported that nearly half of fundraisers had tasks other than fundraising in their job descriptions, and less than half of fundraising departments were adding staff. No wonder that managing priorities for our time can be our greatest challenge. 

I think fundraisers are some of the smartest, most dedicated people on the planet. I started spending time with fundraisers when I was a grantmaker because I wanted to understand how nonprofits build quality and volume of service. Then I decided I wanted to do the building, so I “crossed over” to become a fundraiser. 

I was hired as founding development staff of a bankrupt and dormant nonprofit seeking to re-launch. Talk about being dropped in the deep end of the pool! Fundraising colleagues helped me harness staff, trustees, and a great consultant to enable us to re-open in 18 months, quintuple our size in five years, and grow to a 100,000-square-foot, $13 million annual budget, half-million-people-serving success story in 20 years. 

I learned some lessons along the way about what works best when working with foundations and how fundraisers can make our investment of time most effective. Here are some initial insights:

1. Write “base” proposals. Proposal writing is the most time-consuming aspect of foundation fundraising. If we can reduce writing time, we can approach more foundations and build deeper relationships with those that fund us, leading to longer relationships and more grants. Rather than hand-craft each proposal from scratch, develop “base” proposals around each key program area to tailor and tweak as you go along.

2. Develop a collegial relationship with your program officer. You probably think of the foundation/nonprofit relationship as unequal, with the foundation holding all the power. The sooner you can rid yourself of that preconception, the better. Your goal is to have the foundation staff view you as a colleague, someone who can help them do their jobs and deliver social impact.

3. Be strategic about how you present your “ask.” Only propose programs that are a good fit for the foundations you’re targeting. That means finding the “right” foundations in the first place and crafting proposals that you know they’ll want to see—all drawn from your original base proposal, of course! The cookie-cutter approach to foundation fundraising has never worked.

We’ll explore strategies like this every Wednesday in October, starting on October 8 from 2:00-3:30 pm in Foundation Center’s More Asking, Less Writing webinar series. Please join me -- I know we have a lot to teach each other, and I look forward to our work together!

What time-saving methods do YOU use in your own foundation fundraising process? Show off your efficiency in our Comments area, then explore our Developing Proposals gallery.

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