Grant Seekers Toolkit Step 6: Cultivation

Is successful grantseeking all about "who you know?" No, it's not. But who you know - and who knows you - does matter.

How do you do this?

Donor cultivation – building relationships with your funders – should be seen as an ongoing process. It begins with the very first contact you make and goes on indefinitely. Even if a foundation stops funding you (some foundations only provide support for a limited number of years), that relationship remains important. Foundation representatives can continue to introduce you to other potential funders, speak well of you to their colleagues, and be an informal advocate for your cause. Just as good relationships have long-lasting impact, bad relationships with funders can have negative results for extended periods of time.

Although it is a business relationship, the fundamentals of donor cultivation are the same as in any good relationship. The people involved need to get to know each other, build trust, and treat each other with respect.

When you are approaching a foundation for the first time, the initial relationship may begin with that first phone call that you make for information. Or you might get an introduction to a foundation staff person through one of your board members. Or you might begin the relationship with a letter of inquiry. Like a first date, you don’t know exactly where your early approaches will go, but you can be sure that they will make a lasting impression.

The early relationship-building period may last quite a while, or it may move quickly, depending both on your approach and on the foundation. Sometimes, it may include one or more meetings with the foundation representative or even a site visit (see article on Site Visits). In some cases, you might invite a foundation representative to serve in some fashion in an advisory capacity to your organization well before seeking support in a formal proposal. On the other hand, you may move from introduction to proposal after a simple phone conversation.

Once you have been invited to submit a full proposal, you should continue to cultivate the foundation in ways that are pertinent to your request. You should contact the foundation if you have substantive updates or new information to report. This might include the announcement of another grant, hire of a key staff person, or advances in project development. (If your project undergoes significant changes after you submit your proposal, you must be sure to report this to the foundation promptly.)

Develop a Customized Cultivation Plan

If you are awarded a grant, be sure to send a prompt thank you. Then, sit down with the appropriate staff person at your organization and develop a customized cultivation plan for that foundation. This process doesn’t need to take more than 15 minutes or so. The plan might include one or more of the following:

  • Calling the foundation mid-year to provide an update;
  • Sending a short mid-year update letter;
  • Sending selected audio, if the foundation has supported broadcast
  • Inviting the foundation representative to sit in on a studio session;
  • Inviting the foundation representative to attend a station-sponsored event;
  • Sending audience feedback about funded programming;
  • Inviting the foundation representative to a mid-year site visit;
  • Asking a board member who is known to the foundation representative to send a personal thank you;
  • Sending a news clip about the project, if available;
  • Sending a year-end report on the project (this is almost always required by the foundation, but you should plan to send one even if it isn’t mandatory).

Be creative. There are many different ways to engage donors with the work you do. The most important thing is to help your foundation donors see the impact of the work they are supporting. If your proposal is declined, you may still decide to keep the foundation in active cultivation. You may make this decision because:

1) you have some indication from the funder that there is a viable chance of future support; or

2) you think the match is strong enough to merit a future request.

Again, develop a simple cultivation plan for the specific foundation.

Be sure to put the cultivation activities on your calendar right away!

It is very easy to let cultivation activities slide because they usually don’t have the firm deadlines of, say, a pledge drive. But they are still important, they can usually be planned to accommodate your schedule, they don’t need to be time-consuming, and they will pay off.

Finally, remember that cultivation is most effective when it is ongoing. It is not a good idea to wait until two weeks before the renewal deadline to begin “cultivating.” That said, don’t be like the “friend” who calls six times a day. Foundation staff are busy – so don’t barrage them with information and invitations. A few well-placed notes, phone calls, or invitations can really help your donors feel connected to your organization and favorably inclined to invest in it in the future.