How to win friends and influence funders

10 Dec

We're all in this together.

How many of you know your funders? I mean, really know them? Getting cozy with foundation officers is always helpful, and it’s something we’re all told to do.

But how exactly is that done? Beyond simply saying hello to them at community events and receptions and such?

Recently I had the opportunity to make a new friend. And I noticed that there is a little dance we all do when forming a new relationship. And, well, gaining a funder as a professional ally is a lot like making a new friend in your personal life. Consider these six basic principles:

1) Discover Commonality: Your personal friends are your personal friends for a reason–you have a lot in common. Be sure that the funder is revelant to your mission. I don’t mean you should think of it from the position of “what can you do for me,” but rather, is this relationship meaningful for my organization? If a foundation officer works with a funder that is so far removed from what you do that the relationship has nothing to offer your or your agency, you may be better off putting your time into someone closer to your cause.

2) Create Mutual Benefit: This is a natural offshoot of #1. Create a connection with commonalities and then look for ways to be of service to the funder–not just for how they can help you. They hold the purse strings, but you are the content area expert on your cause. Be a resource for them.

3) Ask for Advice: When you seek someone’s opinion, you’re saying you value them. Having them weigh in on a decision creates buy in. Just remember that people often expect you to take their advice once offered. Spend some time working on #1 and #2 before you potentially bind yourself to someone.

4) Tell Them a Secret: Confiding in someone creates intimacy. Sharing something confidential with a funder, which often happens while seeking advice, tells them “I trust you.” Just be careful what you share. Never, ever share anything gossipy or about other people, whether they are staff, board, volunteers or other funders. Never share anything about other nonprofits. Consider the timing–is it too much too soon? Are you straying into TMI territory? And consider who you’re telling. Foundation officers are just people, and some people are vaults and some have loose lips. A good example of sharing a secret is my being able to see lion cubs up close and personal at Austin Zoo and Animal Sanctuary before the general public knew about them. The Executive Director and I already had a good working relationship of several months, and she knew I could keep my mouth shut until she was ready for the world to know.

5) Just Hang: Not everything has to be a visit in a foundation office or a site visit at your agency. Take your foundation officer for lunch or coffee–especially if you’re asking for advice or sharing a secret. Don’t feel like you have to take her to a schwanky place. It’s not necessary, and in fact may make her wonder how you spend your organization’s money. Coffee is plenty and it’s efficient. If she only has half an hour to spare, meeting her for coffee near her next appointment is thoughtful and respectful. Don’t forget those community events and receptions. Let’s face it, sometimes those things are dull and seeing a friendly face who can offer real conversation is refreshing.

6) Keep It Real: The trick to all of this is–it has to feel natural. Foundation officers are like the prettiest girls at the dance–they get offers all the time and they’ve heard every line. The suitors who win fair maiden are those who are sincere, honest and trustworthy. We all know what’s on the table, that’s no secret. Just approach the situation with an open mind and a willing heart and you’ll have yourself a healthy relationship that benefits you both.


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