4 Winning Strategies to Build Relationships with Funders

Organizations thrive off of relationships. If you want to achieve your mission or if you want your project to be successful, you have to build relationships with clients, customers, volunteers, community partners, donors, or research partners. Grant writing is no different. Just like an artist whose hands and wrists guide beautiful paint stokes unto the canvas, in grant writing, handshakes can open doors to funding.

You may notice (in your grant research!) that sometimes grantors will explicitly state “proposals by invitation only.” or “unsolicited proposals are rarely funded.” If the grantor is not expecting your proposal, that is what is called a “Cold Proposal.” Cold proposals are much less likely to receive funding simply because the grantor does not know you yet. For example, often, corporate foundations want you to present your proposal in a public forum as opposed to just turning in an electronic application. However, if you aren’t best friends with your local foundation president, don’t worry! Here are some tips for building connections.

Ask Your Supporters

Ask Your Supporters

Your Board members, volunteers, stakeholders, and friends are fantastic assets to your organization when it comes to connections with grantors. Ask your supporters to list all their potential, influential contacts. Or, start the habit of sending an email to your Board each time you identify a foundation, for instance. You may be surprised to find out what connections exist. Scour social media sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook to find mutual friends between the grantor’s staff and your network. First, look up the staff and board members of the identified Foundation or funding source and then check social media to see if you have any connections. Sometimes a simple email stating, “Hi, Sarah (grantor connection) I volunteer with XYZ Organization and am passionate about their work. I want to introduce you to Scott (Grant Writer), who is working on this amazing program…” makes all the difference in the world.

Attend Events

Spend time actively developing relationships with grantors in your area. Follow the grantor on social media and attend their events. Maybe you feel you don’t need to know much about a workshop entitled “Innovation: Putting Broadband to Work,” but it might be worth attending the workshop to run into influential grantor staff and share what you do with them to begin building relationships.

Call Program Officers

Call Program Officers

Lastly, most foundations or other funders have staff members whose primary job involves working with organizations that are seeking funding. These Program Officers are used to calls from organizations and individuals, and they are often happy to help.

You should always make sure to call the Program Officer before you write your proposal. Not only will it introduce your organization to the grantor, but they can also give you tips on how to make your project better.

Here is an illustration of why it is a good idea to call Program Officers before you get too far into writing your grant.

Recently, a grant writer I know identified a foundation that they wanted to approach for funding to support the creation of a strategic plan. Through conversations with the grant writer’s board members, they knew that this foundation supported capacity building efforts. However, during the call, the Program Officer listened to the proposed idea and responded bluntly, but politely “That idea won’t be a good fit with our foundation. We aren’t interested in funding plans that will end up sitting on shelves.” The grant writer was surprised but asked the Program for guidance on ideas that would be more in line with the foundation’s goal. The Program Officer then shared that the foundation was much more interested in supporting programs like continuing education for staff.

In this example, the grant writer shifted gears and submitted a proposal that had a much higher chance of being funded. Sometimes Program Officers may tell you that your grant isn’t a good fit for funding. Don’t feel hurt, ask the Program Officer about the Foundation’s current funding priorities, and consider that call worth all the time you would have spent developing a grant that had no chance.

Below is a typical outline of an initial conversation with a Program Officer:

  • You call the Program Officer (On time!) on the specified date and time.
  • Introductions.
  • Often the Program Officer will then ask you to share about your project.
  • Next, the Program Officer will likely ask what you know about their organization and then give you more insight around how they operate.
  • The Program Officer will mention ways that your project idea either fits or does not fit with the grantor’s priorities.
  • Last, the Program officer will either explain how to apply or offer up resources if the project is not a good fit.

Elevator Speech

Elevator Speech

Whether you call a foundation, attend an event, or set up a meeting with a Program Officer, you will want to prepare for that interaction. You are the authority on your project, and you are naturally the most passionate about the work. If you aren’t able to share that passion with potential funders, then it will be impossible for them to see the value of awarding you funds to achieve your goals. Spend time crafting an elevator speech, one that feels like it could drop naturally into any conversation.

If a funder asks “What do you do?” instead of saying “I am the owner of a small business.” say something like:

“I own Tandem, a small business that is changing the way cities view public transportation. We offer rideshare opportunities that make it possible for individuals to arrive at work and be productive members of society without the high costs of transportation and negative impacts on the environment. It is a new company, but we have experienced tremendous business growth in a small amount of time. Our secret to success has been an innovative approach to customer engagement.”

While the second response takes 20 seconds longer, it tells the funder who you are, why your project is essential, that you have a proven track record, and it invites them to ask more. The last sentence, “Our secret to success has been an innovative approach to customer engagement.” indicates that your business is doing something new. The sentence acts like click-bait; it draws them in, encouraging them to ask the question, “Can you tell me more about this approach? What makes it innovative?”

Make sure that you can naturally deliver this elevator speech. If you sound like a robot reading a script, it will seem forced and will hurt your chances of building relationships with funders. Building connections allows the grantor see the personal side of your project as well as the value of the project.

When developing your elevator speech, ask yourself these questions:

What is the easiest and most compelling way to describe my project? What do I want people who know nothing about my project to understand? How can I describe my project in a natural way?

Here is an example of an elevator speech that I used when I was the Community Outreach Director of a nonprofit organization that ran an after-school program. I described the program this way:

Homework Club is an after-school program with a unique twist. Initially, a local, low-income apartment complex established the program because they wanted to address the problem of children running around in the parking lot after school unsupervised. The apartment complex management decided to use an empty apartment and host an after-school program that they ran, and they called it “The Monster Club” It turns out, when you call kids monsters…they act…like monsters. So after a short period, the apartment complex contacted us and asked us to take over running the program because they could not handle running it themselves. We came in and changed up the operations by calling the program a dull and practical name, the Homework Club. We brought in retired teachers to run the curriculum and to act as mentors, and we now see significant successes in improving the reading and math scores of the children who attend.

Another key to our success is the innovative model of hosting the program at the apartment complex. The children were roaming the parking lots because they had nowhere else to go after school. If we offered the program even a quarter of a mile away, we would not be able to reach these students due to transportation issues. Homework Club meets children where they are at both metaphorically with trauma-informed mentors, and literally by operating out of an apartment near their homes. Right now, we serve children in Kindergarten through Second grade, and we are seeking collaborative partners to increase our impact by leasing another apartment and opening the program to all elementary school children.

You can see in this brief description I addressed the goal of the program, who we were serving, why we were seeking addition funds, and even threw in a couple jokes to make the description more natural.


Grant writing is not something that you can accomplish while locked away in your office or sitting at home on your couch. Well, you can, but if you fail to build relationships with potential grantors, your chances for success will be considerably lower. Just like when applying for jobs, if you have a personal connection, you are much more likely to be hired. If a grantor knows about you and the work you are trying to accomplish, they are much more likely to fund your project. Similarly, the more you know about a grantor, the better you will be able to tailor your proposal to their priority areas.