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Expert advice from an industry pro

As a writer, editor and trainer for the nonprofit sector for more than 20 years, I've answered my share of tough questions! And many of them have been focused on grantseeking. A few inquiries appear below, along with my answers.

How do we deal with another nonprofit that serves the same group as we do when they are less than honest and not transparent? Funders are unsure what is the truth and I believe it hurts the community.

That's a tricky one because you don't want to bad-mouth another organization. Instead, emphasize the credibility and support that YOU have. Do you have lots of rave reviews on GreatNonprofits? How about excellent ratings from independent agencies such as Charity Navigator? What does your profile look like on GuideStar? Maybe you have some stellar press hits or wonderful endorsements from your clients, community, other funders or even celebrities? Play up your strengths and make sure that you are sharing clear and complete information with the public (for example, financial information on your website). Keep it positive and transparent on your end and you will attract positive attention.

In grant proposals, should we use all of the space given in the application, or is it best to keep it short instead?

My suggestion is always to strive to cultivate conciseness. Regardless of the amount of space you are given on an application, you want to focus on brevity as long as you can still clearly make your points. If you have plenty of space, use it wisely. Just remember that your readers receive an overwhelming number of applications. If your proposal is easy to skim, it will be enjoyable and informative to read. You want to leave the reader with a positive feeling. Look to strike the right balance.

How can I handle competition with friends in a small city, with a small pool of local foundation opportunities?

Ah — one of my favorite topics! "Competition" for funders' attention is a reality and I'm glad you acknowledged it. A few things I can say:

Expand your prospects

You may need to expand your field of vision to include funders that are not the "usual suspects" in your community. Think about making the pie bigger instead of focusing on slicing it thinner or fighting over crumbs. For example, have you done thorough research to find small or little-known family foundations or local companies (or branch offices) with an interest in your issue? Have you cast as wide a net as possible to see if your work has implications beyond your local area, and thus would appeal to funders in other regions or statewide? You will be surprised what thorough research can turn up!

Make your organization stand out

What if you are convinced that you have identified all possibilities and still find only a small pool of funders? Then you will need to make sure your organization's work stands out as a unique solution that is in line with the specific needs and interests of the funder.


Having acknowledged the reality of competition, I strongly encourage you to explore collaboration. I am the first to agree that healthy competition keeps organizations on their toes. But I bemoan the frequent tendency to allow narrow organizational interests (such as maintaining the status quo or protecting fragile egos) to take precedence over larger community interests. We are often so passionate and concerned about our own sub-issues and services that we can neglect the potential allies out there. Don't make this mistake. I often feel frustrated when several community-benefit organizations try to do extremely similar work — in isolation. Clearly, if they worked together they could summon a whole new level of power. But fruitful collaboration requires attention and effort. Unfortunately, many organizations miss out on this valuable strategy.

No one — especially foundation officers — likes to see duplication of effort among barely distinguishable parties. Show that you are not only aware of your potential collaborators, but also working with them to make an even bigger difference than you could make alone. If you do so, you will be ahead of the game. Foundation officers will love it!

Emphasizing how you work collaboratively shows them that you are strategically maximizing your precious resources. It also demonstrates that your organization is "in the know" about your field as a whole. Seriously consider writing collaborative grants.

Whenever you find a strong connection between your organization and another, in terms of work and target audience, you will also find a stellar opportunity to benefit mutually. By working together, you:

  • Build on each other's strengths and complement each other's weaknesses
  • Avoid duplicating services by coordinating and streamlining your work
  • Learn from each other's experiences
  • Begin to see relationships among the issues and approaches that you focus on
  • Share information and resources instead of having to seek them out individually
  • Begin to reap the benefits of economies of scale

All of these benefits of collaboration should feature prominently in your grant proposals.

10 years ago developing and maintaining relationships with foundations was important. Now, I am finding that foundations don't want to talk to me. What's your take on this?

As you know, relationships are key to fundraising. Actually, I mean relationships based on trust and open communication. With that said, you are right. As more and more foundations use online applications, you may find fewer opportunities to get to know a foundation program officer. But just because they are using more efficient technology does not mean that they don't want to talk to you.

If in your research, you find a published phone number or email address consider that an invitation to contact the funder with your questions. As you peruse their guidelines and application form, you may need more information or clarification. You may wonder if your program is a true match with their funding priorities. That's exactly the time to contact them!

Just know that they are time-pressed. Expect only a few moments of their time. You will need to be prepared to provide information about your organization that is of most interest to them. Study their material so you are ready to address their exact needs using their language. Most program officers are actually friendly people and want to help (hey, that's why they're there!). They also want to save themselves from wading through oceans of inappropriate applications.

Once you initiate a relationship with a foundation representative, strive to maintain it. Keep in touch and offer information that will be of use to them. Ask if they would like to receive your newsletter or if they would like you to keep them posted on big developments that may bring your organization closer to their world.

For example, I was doing some funder research for a client and found one that had unclear guidelines. So I called, spoke with a very friendly representative and emailed in some information. They called back, spoke with my client, and discussed how the match is not quite right at this moment but may become so in the near future. They will keep in touch, maybe even meet at the project site, and go from there.

Another client of mine had an existing relationship with a funder but wasn't sure about funding for a new, more comprehensive project. We called to clarify, were invited to submit an application, and won the grant. As you can see, relationships and persistence are crucial.

However, if you can't find any contact information for the funder, they probably do not have the staff to field your questions. Respect that. Apply through the prescribed process.

Can we join any online groups of foundation officials?

Foundations generally do not have online groups that are open to the public. You can imagine that such lists would be inundated with grantseekers! However, you will find many great online groups for nonprofit professionals or readers of philanthropy journals (for example, on LinkedIn) that include many foundation representatives among the members. Funders also do a lot of community outreach and will often speak at live "Meet the Grantmakers" sessions at conferences or at local technical assistance centers. There, you can meet them and start relationships. The Foundation Center has a great archive of recorded sessions.

Do you have any advice on applying for grants from specific foundations that reveal very little information about themselves?

Yes, there are many foundations that — for whatever reason — do not have their own websites. But once you know the name of a foundation that is interested in your topic area, you may be able to find that funder listed elsewhere on the web.

For example, check out the wealth of information offered by the Foundation Center and look for the IRS Form 990 at GuideStar. Additionally, see what you can find on other websites that may mention the funder. Once you have an address and phone number (or even an email address), you can contact the foundation directly to ask about grant guidelines, deadlines, etc.

If you learn that the foundation does not accept unsolicited letters of intent or proposals, but you still think it closely matches your organization, consider adding the funder to your newsletter list.

For more tips from Dalya Massachi, visit Writing to Make a Difference.



MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.




Writer, editor, and writing coach dedicated to inspiring and equipping changemakers to use their writing to make a difference in the world