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Good Things Come from Small Foundations
Good Things Come from Small Foundations

A guide to generating vital grants from lesser-known foundations

By Ellen Ryan


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Hope College



Have a project in need of funding? It's tempting to pitch large educational grant-makers like the Ford and Annie E. Casey foundations, but they attract a lot of proposals. Pursuing grants from smaller, regional, or lesser-known foundations, as Virginia's Radford University discovered, allows you to stand out in a smaller pool.

"A letter to a national foundation would get us ignored," says Robyn Porterfield, Radford's former executive director of corporate and foundation development. The average regional foundation sees 200 to 300 applicants a year, and a national one receives up to 1,000 a year. Yet each may award equally large amounts.

Radford is worthy of investment, but it's not near the state capital or the technologically and monetarily rich northern suburbs, making it easy to overlook. So the public institution close to the Blue Ridge Mountains often turns to lesser-known foundations whose charitable focus aligns with its scaled-down goals.

For Hope College in Michigan, "small and regional foundations are our bread and butter," says Mark DeWitt, director of corporate and foundation relations, noting that the institution secures some $25 million in grants every year. "If I had a nickel for every time [a boss or colleague] said to go for the Gates Foundation, I'd be wealthy."

"I think we have a bigger yield than we would have chasing the big guys anyway," DeWitt says. His success rate? 66 percent.

The options are increasing: The number of grant-making foundations in the U.S. grew from 64,845 in 2002 to 87,142 in 2013, with the majority of the growth coming from independent foundations endowed by individuals and families, according to the Foundation Center. In the U.K., the Association of Charitable Foundations reported in 2015 that grant-making by the top 300 foundations as well as family foundations increased 6.4 percent and 4.2 percent, respectively, in 2013-14 over the previous year. Foundation giving is projected to increase 5.7 percent this year and 6.4 percent in 2017, which bodes well for educational institutions, according to Marts & Lundy's Philanthropy Outlook 2016 & 2017.

Tapping into that largess means approaching the right foundation at the right time with the right project. Here's how to find, cultivate, and steward small foundations eager to make an impact on campus and in the community.

Getting started

Studying a foundation's mission and goals is critical. Online research is the first step, although Porterfield cautions that foundation information isn't always up to date. "A lot of what you find online isn't even true," she says. Foundations want to make sure you aren't wasting their time or yours. So cold-sending a proposal isn't advised. How do you build a relationship?

Make contact: For some foundations, it's best to use suggested channels, including an online inquiry form. At the McCune Charitable Foundation, which has funded New Mexico independent schools, community colleges, and universities, a staffer responds to the form and will "answer questions and direct people the right way," says associate program officer Allison Hagerman. At the Mary Morton Parsons Foundation, executive director Amy Nisenson usually talks with callers: "A conversation tells me where you are in your campaign or project. I can straighten out and manage expectations."

Goose the grapevine: Bad news from one foundation can even be good. "I may suggest another foundation for additional funds or make the introduction," Nisenson says. "Most of us know each other formally or informally, at least in the region. We want to see the money used in the best way."

Want to get noticed by a foundation that accepts applications by invitation only? To show Hope College's success in promoting causes one foundation favors—such as engaging women in the hard sciences and promoting women into STEM faculty leadership—DeWitt networked through a faculty member who had earned a scholarship from the foundation. He also presented letters signed by the president and a relevant dean. The campaign has worked so far. Hope is at the table, although it hasn't yet received a grant.

Interview foundations: Though harder to set up, a face-to-face talk is better than a phone call. An exploratory visit can yield feedback on the idea, dollar amount, timing, and more, DeWitt says.

"At a first meeting, I ask about successful partnerships, what's a good outcome, and why. You won't get that online," Porterfield says. She assumed the Wells Fargo foundation's regional decision-makers would prefer to support business or STEM initiatives. But a meeting with donation staff revealed an emphasis on workforce development in rural areas, so she created a winning proposal for $21,000 in scholarships for nontraditional nursing students.

The McCune Charitable Foundation periodically invites fundraisers to a group meeting, where they "can learn about the work of others, applicants past and future, and present ideas in an open forum," Hagerman says. "It functions like a Q&A."

Don't be afraid to ask foundation staff for advice, says Roxanne Ford, the executive director of foundation relations at the University of California, Irvine, who spent 28 years at the W.M. Keck Foundation. "Most of their job is to advise and guide you."

Show what your institution is all about: A small or regional foundation may take the time for a campus visit, but if they don't come to you, bring what you can to them. Nisenson of the Parsons Foundation is happy to look at photos or renderings but says, "Nonprofits don't have to buy lunch or gush over us. It's not our money. Just have a frank, professional conversation about mutual goals."

And don't tell different stories to different foundations, says Dennis Alexander, director of foundation relations at Texas Christian University. "Staff often know each other and have informal relationships."

This gift, next gift

As with any gift, the path to the next one starts with how you handle the first one. "Always acknowledge the generosity of the foundation that believed in your dream," Ford says. Recipients sometimes want to tinker with the grant agreement, but "get the thank you out first, then say, ‘We're reviewing the grant award letter and will get right back to you.' " Other stewardship tips:

Report impact regularly and on time: Foundations want regular updates; don't make them beg. In the U.K., foundations and trusts may want up to four reports a year, says Hannah Eno, major gifts manager, trusts and foundations at the U.K.'s University of Birmingham. To ensure that they go out on time, Alexander marks a calendar a month ahead with the names of whoever has to be involved. Get donor relations or stewardship staff to help with reporting, he adds. "Good reporting makes foundations feel good about their support, which leads to further gifts."

If a problem arises, inform the funder immediately and communicate a plan to fix it. When she was at the W.M. Keck Foundation, Ford, on several occasions, accidentally discovered—after the fact—that grant recipients had experienced setbacks or made changes in timelines.

"Foundations remember when you take the money for granted and forget that the grantor has a stake in the outcome," she says. "If things didn't go well, maybe there's a lesson they can learn for the future. Communication is important. The foundation will care, so keep them in the loop."

Personalize your gratitude: "Check in annually, not just when it's time to renew the grant," Nisenson says. Send annual reports and newsletters with a note attached. The more personal the grant—scholarships, fellowships, endowed chairs—the more personal the response should be, whether celebratory lunches or a handwritten letter.

At the all-girls Marymount High, foundations often support scholarships and financial aid. Rachel Grella-Harding, director of foundation and special giving, matches students with funders, and in the fall, with families' permission, she sends each foundation a girl's profile. The student writes a letter at Christmas and Easter. "It's a great stewardship vehicle, and students are proud to do it," Grella-Harding says.

TCU's chancellor sends personal notes for donations of $10,000 or more. Even if the gift is perpetual, show you haven't forgotten: At Hope, an endowment was established 20 years ago for early- to mid-career faculty members. DeWitt ghostwrites a letter each year from his president to provide updates on the researchers' work.

Stay in touch: "It's never bad to say, ‘Fab Camp opened today with 160 eager students; feel free to come by and see [it] if you're in the area,' " Ford says. "People seem to be afraid to contact foundations. They're afraid they'll say the wrong thing or annoy with too much information. But if it's in good faith and on topic, especially for milestones, it's fine."

Events are good stewardship, too. Eno held a private opening of the Lapworth Museum and an annual induction for the Chancellor's Guild of Benefactors (for £1 million-plus donors, which often includes trusts) at summer graduation.

Maintaining contact is both required and the right thing to do. It can also pay off. One foundation gave a grant for Hope's new music center when "we assumed they'd liked the sciences—that's what they originally funded," DeWitt says. "We learned that they liked the arts as well by keeping in touch."

Think carefully about recognition strategies: Most foundations don't like gifts. "Gifts of flowers are not necessary and may be wasteful," Nisenson says.

So consider the emotional versus monetary value of what you might offer in appreciation. To make room for the music center that was dedicated in October 2015, Hope College cleared ash and cherry trees from a former park. It used wood from the trees to make 40 wooden bowls for donors. "It was a simple gesture, didn't cost a lot of money, but people cherished them," DeWitt says. "They're both functional and beautiful, and the recipients liked that they had a story behind them."

In stewardship as in cultivation, small and regional foundations may not be all that different from their bigger siblings. But the payoff may surprise you.

"I've known a few institutions—and had a few bosses—that favored national foundations not because of better grant potential but because there's a certain cachet attached to their grants," TCU's Alexander says. "But if your priority is fundraising rather than prestige, regional foundations are a much more productive way to go."

About the Author Ellen Ryan

Ellen Ryan, a former senior editor of Currents, is an award-winning writer/editor and former managing editor of Washingtonian magazine.

 

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