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Grant Seeking and Relationship Cultivation: Why it matters

Actively cultivating relationships with funders is among the best steps you can take to secure more support.

March 30, 2022

The following piece is a guest post written by Lauren Steiner, President of Grants Plus.

Many nonprofit organizations rely on grants as a key part of their revenue mix so they can pursue new programs and sustain their missions. But winning grants isn’t easy and certainly isn’t guaranteed. Just because an organization has a need for funding doesn’t mean it is destined to win a grant. 

To be successful in securing grants, nonprofit leaders must shift the emphasis from their own needs to the priorities and perspectives of their funders. Different funders may have different motivations for making grants, but the following principles are true about most foundations:

  • Foundations have their own missions to fulfill and make grants to organizations whose programs and strategies will bring that mission to life.
  • Grants come from foundations, which are institutions, but funding decisions are made by people at that foundation.

These two principles illustrate why winning grants is so much more than the transactional step of writing and submitting a grant proposal. Winning a grant from a foundation starts with seeking to know the funder, on two levels:

  1. To know the foundation, including its unique mission, vision, and funding priorities.
  2. To know the people at the foundation, which may include program officers, trustees, and others who make and influence funding decisions.

The truth about grant seeking is that it is relational, like any other aspect of fundraising. So how do you cut through the crowds to catch the attention of the foundation (or charity, government office, or corporation) offering a grant? And how do you get your organization’s foot in the door for invite only grant opportunities? It takes more than a compelling mission statement and impactful visual brand.

To seek grants effectively and maximize support, you’ll need to actively cultivate relationships with funders.

This guide will explore why relationship cultivation is so important for nonprofit grant seeking as well as how to get started building those relationships with funders.

Why Relationship Cultivation Matters

1. Existing relationships with funders can be deciding factors for grants.

Many funders base their award decisions (both explicitly and implicitly) on their relationships with the organizations that apply for their grants. Why is an existing relationship between the organizations a common factor in successful proposals?

  • Name recognition and a professional relationship between points of contact make it easier for your nonprofit’s proposal to quickly get the attention of funders who are likely swamped with incoming applications to review.
  • Depending on its scope and specifics, your existing relationship can also quickly assure the funder of your organization’s trustworthiness, effectiveness, and program quality.
  • Existing relationships are also a prerequisite to apply for invite only grant opportunities, which are very common. Only 28% of foundations in the US accept unsolicited proposals. That leaves a tremendous segment of foundations with “closed doors” that organizations can attempt to open through proactive relationship building. 

Taken together, these factors mean that receiving a grant without some form of existing relationship to the funder is rare but not impossible.! An investment of your time and attention will bolster your chances of success and help you better target your grant search and application process.

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2. Relationships help you choose grant opportunities more effectively.

Remember that every grant you choose to pursue comes with an opportunity cost. In other words, choosing to spend the time and resources to pursue one funder may mean you are without the time and resources to pursue another. That’s why it’s so important to prioritize the grant opportunities you stand the greatest chance to win, including where you have the best odds of securing a sound relationship. 

By actively cultivating relationships with a network of funders, you can simplify the process of choosing which grants to pursue and when. Imagine this scenario—you’ve identified two promising grant opportunities that align with your mission and programming goals but that have a few key differences:

  • Grant A has a hefty award attached but comes from a well-known funder that you’ve never engaged with before. You do some research and find that they’ve funded some impressive programs for other nonprofits in your space.
  • Grant B comes with a slightly smaller award but is from a funder that you’ve received support from once before. Your first funded project with this funder was a smashing success, leading to program improvements and a seamless grant management process.

Which opportunity is the better investment of your time and resources? In most cases, Grant B is the better choice because of your existing relationship and track record of success. Competition for Grant A is likely to be very fierce, and you’ll likely have a difficult time standing out without being recognizable to the foundation.

Of course, the exact opportunity calculations you make can vary heavily based on your nonprofit’s unique goals and the specifics of the grant opportunities being compared. For instance, if Grant A perfectly aligns with your nonprofit’s programming goals and comes from a funder that you’ve been actively trying to build a relationship with, carefully crafting a standout proposal (and following the steps detailed below) could certainly be a smart move. 

However, the main idea is that existing relationships with funders generally boost your likelihood of success and so are an important factor to keep in mind when prioritizing opportunities.

3. Cultivating relationships broadens your network of support for future opportunities.

Once you actively cultivate relationships with existing funders, your network of support can begin to grow organically, opening up even more doors for your nonprofit with significantly less effort than if you were starting from scratch each time. For example:

  • Funders with whom you have strong relationships can introduce you to other funding organizations or share relevant opportunities as they come up.
  • Being invited to (or hosting) events with funders gets your nonprofit’s name, mission, and work in front of more potential supporters.
  • As points of contact move between organizations or into new roles, they’ll take their knowledge of your nonprofit with them—potentially into new funding organizations or into higher positions where they can continue advocating for your work.

But to tap into these long-term benefits and opportunities, you’ll need a foothold to begin growing your network. Let’s explore our recommended steps for strategically building relationships with funders.

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How to Begin Building Relationships

If your nonprofit hasn’t devoted significant time and energy to cultivating relationships with grant funders, you’re likely unsure where or how to get started. Thankfully there are a few straightforward steps you can take to begin identifying and building relationships:

  1. Compile a list of potential contacts and relationships from your staff and board members. Who do they already know in the philanthropic space? Where do they work, and what are their roles? These existing connections will be valuable starting points.
  2. Make another list of funders with whom you already know you’d like to connect. Compare this list against your list of contacts to look for any overlap.
  3. Seek advice from peer organizations in your community. Where have they sought and received grants from in the past? Often this information can be found on an organization’s website or in its annual reports. If they’ve worked with funders whose missions align with your own, would your peer organization be open to introducing you?
  4. Conduct some additional research on funders in your area and/or that share your mission. A valuable long-term partner might already have a presence in your community!
  5. Compile all of your research and findings from Steps 1-4, and start looking for ways to organically cross paths with those individuals and organizations, like by attending events that funders are hosting or also attending.
  6. Once you’ve made initial contact with a funder, think about where your organizations’ interests align and create new touchpoints there. For instance, you might invite the funder to your upcoming event that you think would interest them, or you could send them new studies or new stories relating to your missions and ask for their thoughts.
  7. Continue relying on any existing personal connections throughout the process. If you initially met this funder through a board member, ask that board member to serve as the face for your relationship and manage casual communications with the funder.

Following these steps and expanding outward to incorporate more funders over time will result in a growing network of support across your community and in your mission’s area of focus. This should be an ongoing process, especially the first steps relating to sourcing and brainstorming new connections. Make them a regular habit for your team!

To support your relationship cultivation efforts over time, you’ll need an organized, central location to keep track of your outreach and conversations. Use your CRM or database to actively track all of your touchpoints with funders. This will make it easier to see the status of your relationships at a glance and to quickly get other team members up to speed as needed.

Working with nonprofit consultants specialized in grants can also be a smart choice for organizations that want more hands-on experience with relationship management and building an organized grant seeking process. 

The bottom line: Strong relationships with grant funders don’t appear on their own—you need to actively prioritize and pursue them! 

By understanding why these relationships are so important, following a few steps for sourcing and cultivating them, using the right tools, and seeking expert guidance as needed, you can set your mission up for continued grant seeking success.


Lauren Steiner

Lauren Steiner

Lauren Steiner is the president and founder of Grants Plus, a national leader in grant seeking consulting. Grants Plus has secured $200 million in grant funding for nonprofit organizations around the country since 2007.

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