What to Say to Prospective Funders
We ask all our clients to have a preliminary conversation with prospective funders before preparing to submit a proposal to them. For many, cold calling seems like a daunting task until they realize the benefits of calling and that they already know what to say. Here are some of our best pointers for calling funders.
Introduce Yourself and the Opportunity You Present
You’ve probably heard that it’s important to network with prospective funders. The idea behind this advice is that foundations like to know the organizations they’re investing in. You stand a better chance of receiving dollars once funders feel that you’re a good investment.
Before you call, it’s helpful to prepare yourself. Remember that you are offering the funder a unique opportunity: the chance to invest in something very important—your nonprofit!
Because many funders are interested in outcomes in terms of benefits to the community, make a list of the concrete ways in which your organization improves the community, as well as how things will improve even more with their funding. Be prepared to tell them about:
- Your community
- Targeted problem or need
- Who you are and your mission
Ask to Learn More About the Funder’s Priorities
Do you think that you can learn all you need to know about the funder by reading the foundation’s website or the Foundation Center’s resources? You’re partially correct. Certainly you should do your homework before calling a funder. However, you never know when a funder might impart a gem of advice that isn’t spelled out in their literature.
Approach your phone call with an open-minded attitude, ready to learn something new. Listen for key information. Take notes about:
- The funders’ priorities—in their own words
- Feedback on your proposed project-for-funding
- Their advice on how much to ask for (especially if this is your first request)
- What types of projects their board is most interested in
Offer to Summarize Your Project Plan
Ask if you can take a few minutes to tell them about your project idea so that you don’t waste anyone’s time with an unnecessary proposal. Some funders will decline your offer, but others will be grateful for the opportunity to discover whether you’re a match. Make sure to keep your summary brief. To do so, you’ll need to plan out the major details of your project before you make the call. Tell the funder just enough so that they can determine whether your project is of interest to them. Provide an overview of the following:
- Your target population
- What you propose to do
- How things will change as a result of your project
During this part of the conversation, you may receive a crucial bit of information that will redirect your proposal in new and unexpected ways. Perhaps you’ll learn of the funder’s preference to provide services to youths this year instead of seniors (and fortunately you want to expand services to both client populations!). Perhaps you’ll learn of their penchant for posting things online and you can add a web-based project component. Only you can decide if such changes stay true to you project focus and mission. If they do, you are likely to increase your chances of receiving funding significantly.
Be Prepared to Be Challenged
It doesn’t happen often, but a funder may take a combative approach with you during your conversation. One of our clients–a national nonprofit with a long history of providing services through affiliate organizations–was recently challenged by a funder who said, “Why should I give money to you to help other organizations help people when I can give directly to those organizations?” Our client was caught off guard and failed to provide the answer that they, of course, knew: By working through affiliates, this nonprofit could ensure quality service and economies of scale to local nonprofits that would otherwise not have the resources for instituting state-of-the-art services.
So think through your strengths in advance, but don’t take anything personally. As one of my grant-writing colleagues and friends likes to say: You win some and lose a few. Nothing is personal. Keep your head high and heart engaged!
Thank Them for Their Time
This may be obvious, but be sure to get your contact person’s name. Then—if they are a decision maker—address your letter of inquiry or cover letter to them. If they are a staff member, refer to your conversation with them in your letter.
If you decide that this funder is not the right one for you at this time, it’s still a good idea to send a thank you note as follow-up. After all, you may want to return to them to ask for funds at a later date.