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Approaching a Foundation


Approaching a Foundation

One of the most difficult things every fundraiser learns to do is to ask for money. Sitting across from a potential donor, knowing that you are about to say, “…would you consider a gift of…” can be a truly nerve-wracking experience.

When I teach classes in grant research and writing, I always start of by saying that foundations have a lot in common with individual donors- they must be courted, communicated with, thanked, and stewarded in many of the same ways to create a long-term relationship.

But one important way donors and foundations differ is in how they decide to give money. For an individual donor, the decision to give charitable funds is a personal one. Whether made for financial, or humanitarian, or religious reasons, an individual gives when they are moved in some way, because you are asking that person to give money they might otherwise keep.

A foundation exists to give. More specifically, a foundation exists to further a goal through the wise investment of funds in programs.

This is why the one of the most important steps in grant writing is research. You must do your due diligence and identify foundations whose goals closely align with the goals of your organization. Then, when you approach that foundation, it is important to think of your request less as “trying to get money from them” and more as offering them an avenue to accomplish their work through your program.

More and more, foundations are seeking to partner with their program grant recipients. They are seeing their grants as long-term investments as opposed to one-time gifts. This makes two things very important: targeted research to ensure you are proposing your program to the foundation best suited to be your partner; and cultivating strong, on-going relationships with those foundations.

If you know your mission and values are closely aligned with those of the foundation you have identified, you can approach that foundation with confidence.

Kelly is a Consultant for Sims & Steele with experience in foundation and donor research, grant writing and reporting, general fundraising, and project management.

Kelly is a Consultant for Sims & Steele with experience in foundation and donor research, grant writing and reporting, general fundraising, and project management.

Why Start With The Budget?

A budget is often the last piece of the grant proposal that a foundation will ask for. It may be at the end of a long list titled Upload the Following Supporting Documents, or may be a form at the back of an RFP package. One might think this makes the budget one of the least important pieces of the proposal puzzle.

And really, after all of the narrative you have just poured your heart and soul into writing, how important could a few numbers be? Didn’t you just show in your narrative that the work of your non-profit is too important to put a price tag on?

So you estimate as best you can, and fill in the spreadsheet they’ve provided, and you rest your hopes for the proposal on the strength of the narrative. And your non-profit is declined for funding.

Why? Let’s focus on purpose of a grant proposal. It is a request for money, not an educational memo about your non-profit’s work. Each and every penny a foundation commits to a project is meant to achieve the goal you have proposed. Foundations expect that you have planned and budgeted your project, and that you have a full understanding of the resources needed to accomplish the work.

I begin every grant proposal by writing the budget. It is especially important to tie every line item of that budget to one of the achievable goals of the project, and the methodology for how that goal will be met. Creating the budget first allows for greater clarity when crafting the proposal narrative, and ensures that the money requested has a tangible purpose to the funder.

A clear, defined budget that relates directly to the specific steps of the proposed project and the projected outcomes gives your proposal the strong foundation needed to succeed.

Kelly is a Consultant for Sims & Steele with experience in foundation and donor research, grant writing and reporting, general fundraising, and project management.

Kelly is a Consultant for Sims & Steele with experience in foundation and donor research, grant writing and reporting, general fundraising, and project management.

A Shift in Foundation Funding

According to the Foundation Center, there are 86,192 foundations operating in the US as of 2014, awarding over $52 billion dollars each year.  Among the biggest trends is a shift in funding practices that are less obvious, though no less important.

The fastest growing sector of foundation giving is in family foundations and donor-directed funds. These are different from a typical private foundation and the reason is right there in the name: FAMILY foundation and DONOR-DIRECTED funds. These are giving entities that are created by an individual or a family to benefit a personal interest or set of interests. This can lead to very specific funding priorities.  Rather than a foundation stating “education” as the priority and funding throughout the US, or throughout a large region, a family foundation is more likely to specify “education in XYZ town” or “education within the school district of ABC”.

As you may imagine, this affects the approach and application process.  When approaching a standard foundation, you may go to their website, find a phone number and call in hopes of reaching a program officer. Most family foundations do not have a website or a staff, and funding decisions are often made by a family member or group of family members rather than by a Board. This means that cultivating the relationship with the donor becomes the most important part of the process – just as it would be when cultivating a relationship with an individual donor!

Researching a family foundation or a donor-directed fund is also different from researching a standard foundation. Donor-directed funds are typically (though not always) managed by a bank or a Community Foundation, and therefore do not appear in foundation database searches or other online research tools. Likewise, smaller family foundations may not have a large online presence. This means you may have to get creative with your research by looking at donations to other organizations, or Board service by the donor to understand the funding priorities.

The wonderful thing about the increase in family foundations and donor-directed funds is that more people are choosing to give to charitable entities in a more organized way, and are planning to do so into the future. Many family foundations are created with the purpose of teaching younger generations the importance of charitable giving.

Finding those funds, and building strong relationships with those who have created them can be incredibly rewarding for you and your institution.


Kelly - Headshot

Kelly is a Consultant for Sims & Steele with experience in foundation and donor research, grant writing and reporting, general fundraising, and project management.


The Coming of Age of Collaborative Fundraising

I recently gave a presentation on The Coming of Age of Collaborative Fundraising at the AFP Central Carolina chapter in Columbia, SC which got a great response.  In this competitive era of fundraising, with more non-profits angling for available charitable dollars from individuals, businesses and foundations, it is critical to stand out among the crowd.

Collaborative fundraising allows groups, especially smaller groups and organizations, to join together with the desired outcome of raising more than they could alone.  By joining together, these groups can target a bolder vision and more significant fundraising projects, attract major donors, and through their lead and challenge gifts leverage a much wider giving constituency.

Collaborative fundraising can be effective at other junctures throughout the campaign- always with the understood consent and trust of the aligning groups, making the net gain greater than the individual groups could achieve alone. It’s not for every organization, but in the right situations it is powerful, creative and allows for successful capital fundraising.

The presentation addresses strategy and tactics, and specifically:

  • Collaborative fundraising success and where success is not achieved
  • Perspective of major donors
  • Perspective of collaborative organizations
  • 21 Steps for Seamless Collaborative Fundraising

If you are planning a meeting or conference of non-profit leaders or funders who are thinking about big visions and how to fund them, you can contact us at or828-254-9004.



Wilson Sims, Jr.  MBA,  Sims & Steele Consulting   

Wilson serves as convener for the French Broad River Greenway, enjoys a six year match through Big Brother Big Sister, and is president of The Webb School Alumni Board, Bell Buckle Tennessee.


“Under Developed: A National Study of Challenges Facing Nonprofit Fundraising”

From the introduction:

For years now, there has been widespread concern in the nonprofit sector about premature turnover of development directors, lengthy vacancies in the role, and the seemingly thin pool of qualified candidates from which organizations can choose. The development director is commonly labeled a “revolving door” position, and “the hardest to fill and retain” by executives, board members, funders, and capacity builders alike. Moreover, the challenge of assessing development director performance when so many factors influence an organization’s fundraising success can leave executives and board members suspecting—but uncertain—that they could raise more money with someone else in the role. At the same time, development directors frequently lament the lack of consistent attention to fund development from executives, staff, and board members, rendering their job a frustrating set-up.

To better understand these dynamics and to uncover potential solutions to the fundraising challenges nonprofits face, CompassPoint surveyed more than 2,700 executive directors and development directors across the country. Our sample includes a great diversity of organizations—a wide range of budget and staff sizes, a multitude of mission types, and diverse geographic representation—but the organizations have a critical commonality: a senior-level development staff person on their organizational chart, whether in place or currently vacant. We included both development directors and executive directors in this research because of their potentially distinct perceptions of the “revolving door” and its causes.

Our bottom-line finding: Yes, there are considerable problems in the development director role across the sector, but there are also deeper challenges that undermine the ability of nonprofits to raise the money they need to succeed.