This article originally ran in the Chronicle of Philanthropy in response to an op-ed on what grantseekers should (and should not) do when meeting with donors for the first time.
As grant makers, we hold enormous power in relationships with nonprofits. Foundations big and small operate in a system in which nonprofits need funders (or, more precisely, our dollars) to achieve their missions. Our grantees, however, hold the answers to the questions and problems that drive us; they give our dollars meaning and effect, and their work allows us to achieve our missions. It is shortsighted, therefore, to view nonprofits simply as grant seekers. We should see them as critical partners in achieving our own missions as funders. And that partnership must be built on a foundation of mutual respect.
Although we often let our grants be purely transactional: "I give you money; you give me results," I’ve not come across a grant maker or a grantee who prefers this type of philanthropy. It’s the type of interaction that makes nonprofits feel like supplicants and philanthropists feel like ATMs.
Instead of thinking of funding interactions as transactions, I encourage grant makers to think of them as relationships — and relationships are built on human connection. To that end, the 10 do’s and don’ts for nonprofits meetings with donors, which appeared in a recent article on philanthropy.com, can be applied to help grant makers improve meetings with grant seekers.
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As a potential grant maker, you should do the following:
1. Do your homework. Although not all funders have a web presence, it is a rare nonprofit that lacks a website and/or a GuideStar profile. Take five minutes and search online for information about an organization that requests a meeting with you. Look at its most recent annual report and lists of past funders to see if other funders with similar missions have supported this organization. If — and only if — you decide that this organization’s work could fall within your mission and giving criteria, accept the meeting. If it does not, don’t waste your time holding a meeting. More important, don’t waste the nonprofit’s time.
2. Learn how to pronounce your contact’s name — and if you aren’t sure, ask politely. If we want to build relationships with our grantees, and not merely dispense funds to them, it’s important to know whom you’re meeting with and give every person the respect of recognizing his or her identity. If you aren’t sure how to pronounce someone’s name, or are uncertain about a person’s gender identity or anything else that may be crucial to your relationship-building, ask politely — and listen carefully to the answer so you’re sure to get it right in the future.
3. Leave early for your meeting in case there are delays en route. Your time is important, and so is the staff time of a prospective grantee. If you’re going to be late, call to let your contact know. On the flip side, be understanding when conflicts arise for others. We’re all only human.
4. Be present. Take off your coat. Stop looking at your watch. Put your phone away. (If you have a pressing need to keep your phone on hand, like a child care emergency or a loved one in the hospital, simply be candid about that before proceeding. Keep your phone on vibrate and step out if needed.) You accepted this meeting, and the staff members you are meeting with have invariably spent time preparing for it. Honor that time; be present to the conversation at hand.
5. Be flexible. Everyone has scheduling restraints: child care, office hours, side jobs, volunteer gigs. Many funders have full-time careers outside of their philanthropic work, so must schedule around that. Consider that many fundraisers and nonprofit professionals also have scheduling constraints. Don’t ask to meet during school hours if the organization runs in-school programs. Don’t ask to meet on a Sunday morning with a priest or church-based organization. Try to make reasonable accommodations on time and place so that both parties can join a meeting with minimal inconvenience.
6. Remember tone, avoid platitudes, and, above all, repress being a know-it-all. You are walking into a room in which the power dynamics are inherently skewed in your favor; you have access to funds, and the nonprofit in question is seeking some of those funds. Adjust your tone accordingly. Platitudes may come off as promises. Remember that the organization that does this work is the expert at the table, and any advice you may have to offer should be offered with respect. Advice is generally best offered after you’ve built a successful, open, and trusting relationship, not at a first meeting, lest it come across as a demand. Be open to learning and seeing things in new and different ways.
7. Pick up the check. Each party in this first meeting brings something different to a potential partnership. You bring financial resources. Pay for the coffee. Keep in mind that expenses like a lunch meeting with a potential donor are counted as fundraising expenses for a nonprofit, and there is a particularly negative perception of nonprofits that spend money to make money. As out- of- touch as that perspective may be, take advantage of any opportunity to reduce fundraising costs, even if it’s offering to pick up the tab at a business meal.
8. Show gratitude. Thank the person you met with by email or with a written note. Acknowledge what you discussed and note any appropriate next steps expected of you or of the person(s) you met.
9. Don’t ask for favors during the initial meeting. But feel free to offer them. Maybe you realize upon meeting that this organization isn’t a good fit for you, but you think you can introduce the staff member to another nonprofit leader or potential collaborator. If your meeting inspired confidence in the organization, keep its work in mind in case you come across other donors who might be a better fit. Don’t overpromise, but remember you can be supportive without cutting a check.
10. Avoid making assumptions. Be open and honest about what you do and do not know about the person or persons with whom you are meeting, and the work that they do. Remember that, just like you, this person is juggling any number of personal and professional demands in our collective work to change the world. Recognizing each potential grantee as a partner will help you make a stronger connection from the very start of your relationship.
We’re all human, and human connection goes a long way toward building trust, fostering a partnership, and effecting change.
If we put more effort into building strong relationships with nonprofits — be they potential grantees or long-time grant recipients — imagine how far we can go. Together.
What advice would you add for funders meeting with current or potential grant partners?