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Foundation Relations:
Is it What You Do Or Who You Know?

by Ken Goldstein

Many times in my work as a grant writer and consultant, I am asked by my clients to contact a foundation about potential funding. I am happy to do this; it is part of my job and it helps for me to directly ask the questions that will effect what I write in the grant proposal, but I sometimes wonder if the client isn't missing an opportunity by making that connection directly.

By the same token, when I am first meeting with a potential client, they often ask me if I have good connections with any local foundations. I do, I say, but then I think to myself that my connections are irrelevant; it's their connections that matter.

This all bring up the question of whether or not having a connection inside a foundation is more important than what you put in your proposal. Whenever I teach grant writing or nonprofit fundraising planning I am asked about this common assumption, and whether or not it is true.

It is completely wrong, I tell my students, having connections won't get you funding. Except in those situations where it does. Let me explain further.

Connections mean nothing

I can't even count how many times I have submitted an un-invited grant proposal to a foundation based only on my research, without having even one phone conversation or email exchanged between us, and had that proposal fully funded.

On the other end of the scale, I have been in situations where a well-known foundation was wining and dining my co-workers and me, toasting us and what a great partnership we had, only to pull our funding two months later because of a "change in priorities."

The bottom line here is that it doesn't really matter how many friends you have on the inside. If your proposal is well written and clearly identifies how it is in line with the funder's priorities you will be successful. If your proposal is not what the funder is looking for, or it simply isn't clear what you want to do, you will fail. The best connections cannot save a lousy proposal or one that is completely outside the guidelines.

Relationships are everything

What I wrote above does not mean that you shouldn't try to cultivate good relationships with your funders. The same courtesies and attention you put into your individual donors should be shown to your foundation and corporate sponsors as well.

While you can be very successful only submitting un-solicited proposals, you are always playing a numbers game. There are more good nonprofit projects and program proposals than there are charitable dollars to go around. You will receive your fair share of rejections along with the funded grants.

Where good relationships will help you is when it pays off in trust. When a decision is close, being known as a reliable nonprofit that meets its goals and is easy to work with can make all the difference.

Even better is when that relationship pays off with the foundation approaching you for a proposal before you approach them. While even an invited proposal is no guarantee of a grant, it does start you out on much better footing.

But it is up to you to build that reputation and that relationship through dependability and good communications. Respect your foundation officer's time and only call with important questions, not just to gab or to complain, and be sure to thank them for their time. Likewise, be available when they call you with questions about your programs or to find out what your issues are. Submit your reports on time, using the format they provide, and don't ask for any special favors or extensions.


Getting back to the clients who have me make their foundation calls; they're not doing anything wrong by outsourcing that job, but they are missing a chance to get to know their funders better.

As for the clients who ask about my relationships as a pre-requisite to hiring me: my relationships can only go so far. For long-term funding they need to build long-term relationships, and those must be made from within the organization, not from an outside contractor.

To those students of mine who are new to the nonprofit sector and the world of grant writing, I say, don't despair. Build your resumes first, with well-written proposals and successful programs, be yourself and be professional, and the relationships will develop in good time.

To all of them I say, remember, connections mean nothing: relationships are everything.

© 2006 by K.R. Goldstein, all rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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About the Author:

Ken Goldstein is a grant writer and nonprofit consultant working and living in Silicon Valley. Since 1989 he has been an executive director, a board member, volunteer, and consultant to nonprofits. His education includes a BA in Politics from UC Santa Cruz and a Master of Public Policy and Administration from CSU Sacramento.

Goldstein Consulting can be found at Ken is also the author of "Introduction to Fund Development Planning" - Please see for more information.

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