Building Funding Relationships

Cultivating Connections
4 tips for building funding relationships

“Alicia” finally gathered the courage to contact the program officer for a federal grant and get some helpful pointers. But when she had more questions, she wanted someone else to ask them, believing the program officer would think her bothersome.

We gave this GrantProse client some advice about cultivating relationships with funders: 1) rather than being bothersome, she would send a signal that she wanted to “get it right” and submit a strong proposal; and 2) continued, direct contact would prevent lost-in-translation communication errors and create an invaluable record of input and information from the funding source.

Here are our tips on building relationships:

1. Don’t throw spaghetti
Sending off grant applications one after another is like throwing cooked pasta at the wall to see if it sticks. Why spend time and effort on an experimental method? Make contact with the funding agency first, and discover whether your program is a good fit.

Initial contact acquaints the funder with your organization’s mission and capabilities. Continued but respectful contact (don’t be a stalker, do have a purpose) helps the funder really know your organization, which could lead to an invitation to submit a proposal.

2. Practice your elevator pitch
Whether you make an initial approach by email or phone, keep it brief. Jot down the main points you want to make: “I represent the ABC Nonprofit; our XYZ project works with [___this target population___] to effect [__these changes___]. I see you fund [___this focus area___], and before we submit an application, I’d like to confirm that we’re a good fit for funding.” Think through and word your questions carefully so the program officer will have a clear understanding of what you’re asking.

Research the funder before you call! At the very least, review their website for focus areas, agency history, and staff. Foundation Directory Online provides background info; get current developments from Twitter, Facebook, or the agency’s website. It also helps to review past RFPs and funded projects.

3. Pay attention to timing
Don’t approach a program officer in the middle of a big RFP period, when they’re busy answering applicants’ questions. Avoid calling or emailing early on Monday or late on Friday.

Approach program officers as early in the process as you can — before you apply, they can help you decide if your project is a good fit, and after you’ve started a proposal, they can help guide your approach. If you’re lucky enough to have a program officer invite you to send a draft of your proposal, as one GrantProse client was, do it, and do it early! Don’t wait until you have a “perfect” draft.

Relationship building continues to be important after you get funding — you’ll need to go back to the program officer for help with budget changes and reporting — and even if you get rejected. A candid conversation after an unsuccessful but promising proposal can lead to a revised proposal with a better chance of funding.

4. Help the helpers
Turn the tables and identify how your project answers the funding agency’s needs. How can YOU help further THEIR mission? Solid experience and a strong possibility of success? The opportunity to expand their new focus area? An innovative project to rejuvenate an established focus area?

Remember: Most people work for foundations and giving agencies because they like helping others and being part of positive social change. If you’re not right for their agency, and you’ve established a healthy relationship, they might point you toward a funder that’s a better fit.



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