Having the Conversation

The advent of online applications doesn’t mean you no longer have to talk to a funder.  Many grant-makers, especially the independents and family foundations, don’t have web sites and electronic portals.  Large, bureaucratic foundations that have gone paperless often have online forms that are so long and involved, you might want to talk to them, if possible, just to determine if it’s worth your while to apply.

So here’s what you need to extract from a phone conversation with a funder.

Identify the best person to talk to.

If the party on the other end of the line says, “You should speak to so-and-so, I’ll transfer you,” get so-and-so’s direct number or extension.  Chances are so-and-so is “away from her desk or on the other line,” and it would be wise to call again at another time.  Or the person who received your call might say, “Maybe I can help you?”  Fine.  But get their name first.  You might want to connect with them again if something comes up

Would the program fit their current guidelines and geographical focus?

“I reviewed your guidelines and web site,” you should say (because the program officer will be annoyed if you didn’t), “but I have a question about your current grant priorities.”  Now make your pitch and finish by asking if the mission or program would fit the funder’s current interests.  You might want to check exactly what the geographical requirements are.  If they only fund in Westchester and your nonprofit is based in Manhattan but operates a program in Westchester, ask if that’s okay.  Remember: negative information (“No, we only fund nonprofits located in Westchester”) is just as valuable as positive info.

How much to ask for?

You should always look at the funder’s IRS Form 990 and have a dollar amount in mind before picking up the phone.  But don’t be afraid to ask if your suggested amount is appropriate for the funder, especially if your nonprofit is new to them.  Alternatively, you can ask about their range of funding.  Some program officers respond very helpfully to such question.

Submitting: When and How.

Be sure to ask:  “Are there any upcoming deadlines I should be aware of?”  If not, “Is there one time of year that’s better to submit than other times?  Are there times when funds are usually more available?”  Or, “When does your board meet next?”  A board meeting date is a clue as to when the proposal should be submitted. 

Don’t forget to ask: “Do you accept hard copies?”  If they do: “How many copies of the proposal and the attachments would you like?”  “Can we send the proposal to your attention?”  “When can we expect to hear back?”  And never ever forget to check the mailing address!!! 

Lastly, thank the person for spending time with you on the phone.  We’re all swamped with work these days.

What questions do you ask prospective funders?

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