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  • Writer's pictureMelody B. Hernandez

Cultivation - It's the only way to make a relationship grow

My very first time calling a potential funder was a disaster.

Cultivate your relationships with funders to help them grow

I was working as a subcontractor, mainly grant writing, and the woman I was subcontracting under asked if I wouldn't mind calling over to a foundation.

"Sure!" I said, while my heart dropped and my knees shook. You see, I absolutely hate talking on the phone, and specifically talking on the phone to strangers. I would much rather call, email, or meet in person. "What should I say?"

"Just ask them if you could tell them a little about our client and whether or not it would be . good fit," she responded.

Ok, sounds easy enough. I thought to myself. So I made the call.

"Hi! My name is Melody Hernandez and I'm calling on behalf of {CLIENT NAME} in New York. I'm wondering if . . ."

"How did you get this number?" she interrupted, in a rather abrasive tone.

"Uh, it was listed on the 990 for {FOUNDATION NAME}. Do I have the wrong number?" I stuttered.

"If you are calling from New York, why do you have a Minnesota number?" she demanded.

"Uh, well, it's my cell phone. I'm, uh, working from home today."

"So you live in New York?" she continued.

"Actually, I live in San Francisco. I'm helping out {CLIENT NAME} with some of their fundraising." I started to recover my composure.

"Don't call this number again," she said and slammed the phone down.

I stood there staring at my phone thinking, What the heck just happened?

Then I called my client, almost in tears, to explain what had transpired. She was great and talked me down from the ledge saying, "Hey, they listed that number on their 990 so we had every right to call. She was probably the daughter of the foundation's founder and doesn't like to have to deal with any of it."

We ultimately decided to submit a proposal letter, per the 990 guidelines.

And we got the grant

This was by far the most harrowing experience I have ever had when it comes to cultivating a relationship with a potential funder. In hindsight, it helped me get over my fear of picking up the phone and calling: the worst had already happened - and it had ended in success!

Most funders are happy to field calls. They would rather take a 5 or 15 minute call than have to read and evaluate a proposal several pages long that clearly does not align with their funding priorities.

Even more than fielding questions about the application process, most funders are genuinely interested in your organization and your work. They got into this field for a reason and usually that reason is that they want to make the same positive change in the world as you.

When you reach out to a foundation -- even if you are simply asking a quick question -- you will want to have the mindset that you are building a relationship.

Like most relationships, listening is key to a solid foundation. Ask questions, listen carefully to the response, and ask more questions.

In doing so you will most likely be asked questions as well and it is helpful to be prepared with you main points or 'elevator pitch'. Try to keep it brief and after a short description of your organization or program ask, "Is this something you are interested in hearing more about?"

Hopefully the answer is yes and then you can ask how they would like you to proceed: a more in-depth phone call, a short email descriptions, or a Letter of Intent (LOI) are the most common responses from foundations that do not accept unsolicited proposals.

For those that do accept proposals, they may ask that you follow their procedures. However, that brief phone call could make all the difference.

One of my favorite experiences with cultivation was when I called a funder on behalf of a client that offers mental health services. The funder had only ever given to one mental health program before and I wanted to verify that they were interested in receiving a proposal.

I called and said, "Hi! My name is Melody Hernandez and I'm calling on behalf of {CLIENT NAME} and I'm curious if you are interested in hearing about some of our programs to see if they fit your current funding priorities."

The woman responded with, "Yeah, go ahead."

I proceeded to give her a three sentence description of the program and she interrupted excitedly to talk about how the Board had recently decided to increase funding for mental health in light of a few high profile suicides earlier that month. We chatted for about 15 minutes about the state of mental health in this country and I listened to her explain the Board's current focus.

"Can you send me a proposal by next Friday? The Board is meeting in two weeks and hardcopy proposals are supposed to be mailed in by then, but I'll let you email it to me and print them out myself!" she sounded so excited.

Of course I agreed, then let the client know we would need to quickly submit a proposal and include information about the aspects of their program that aligned with the insider info I had just obtained.

The client got that grant as well.

Also like most relationships, honesty is key.

If they ask you a question and you don't know the answer, be honest. Let them know you will find out the answer and get back to them.

If your organization or program is experiencing some struggles, be honest about those as well. Be sure to include the plan for how to address the problem as well as how to ensure the problem will not happen again.

Finally, building a relationship takes time. Be prepared to receive a rejection letter even if it seems like the funder is interested in your work.

My next post will delve into how to interpret rejection letters and whether or not you should try again.

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