We Regret to Inform You…” 5 Tips for Converting a FunderNointo a FutureYes

If you’re a grant seeker, you’ve likely encountered these scenarios.  

Scenario 1: You have an existing, positive relationship with a funder. You’ve submitted a proposal for an expanded or new initiative you thought would interest them, but you received a polite decline. 

Scenario 2: You identified a perfect new funding prospect. You submitted an inaugural proposal after receiving the greenlight on an LOI, but ultimately the funder did not make an award.  

We’ve all been there. 

No one relishes hearing the word NO in response to a funding request. While sources vary, an estimated 80% of grant proposals are declined, so any grantseeker is bound to experience their share of rejections. But when you consider – as in all things in life! – that timing is everything, a “No” doesn’t have to remain a “No” for all time. It might help to think of “No” as “Not right now.” 

To that end, the team at Elevate pulled together a few of our tried-and-true tips to help you convert a funder NO into a future YES. 

1. Open yourself to feedback.

There are many factors that go into funding decisions, both subjective and objective. While you believe in your mission and your organization does excellent work, don’t let that stand in the way of seeing how you can get another bite at the apple. Treat the declination as a valuable learning experience. 

In addition to graciously thanking the funder for their consideration, invest the time in asking what you could do differently to increase your chances of securing the grant in the next cycle. 

If a funder shares any questions or concerns that arose from the proposal, use these inputs to help you shore up those elements for the next grant cycle, make your proposal more compelling, or strengthen an appeal to a different funder who may be interested in your project. 

Additionally, in the case of funders that you have not been able to cultivate prior to a request, your first grant proposal might simply be your opportunity to introduce yourself.  Consider that even if a proposal was declined, if it opened the door for you to develop a relationship with a new funder, it was by no means a waste of time or effort. Use any communication as an opportunity to reiterate your alignment with the funder’s interests and ask for feedback and an opportunity to apply again in the future. 

2. Request a follow-up conversation. 

Not all program officers have the time or capacity to hold follow-up conversations about a declined proposal, but many do! Unless they explicitly state otherwise, you should absolutely take the opportunity to request feedback from the funder about your proposal. Request a phone call or meeting, and ask them how you may position yourself to be a more competitive applicant next time around. You can also gauge their interest in other facets of your programming in case something your organization does interests them more than what you originally proposed. 

A meeting with a foundation program officer or Board member is a chance to get some behind-the-scenes information. For example, one Elevate team’s client was ostensibly within the funder’s geographic footprint based on eligibility criteria. However, upon speaking to the program officer, our client learned that the foundation had yet to ramp up their giving in the specific neighborhood where the organization is situated, and that they plan to do so the following year. With this encouraging news, the Elevate team planned to submit another request when the foundation was more likely to award a grant to our client.

Alternatively, if it’s challenging to get a meeting on the books, you could ask the funder via phone or email whether they would encourage your organization to reapply during the next grant cycle. Their response may end up yielding some useful insight about your likelihood of securing funding in the future. 

3. Seek opportunities to expand your funder network.  

For the most part, foundations operate within a landscape of like-minded organizations, just as nonprofits do. Many funders maintain networks of other philanthropic organizations that share aspects of their giving priorities, and they may even participate in an affinity group of foundations with shared interests. For this reason, after a foundation declines your proposal, it can be valuable to appeal to the funder’s expertise when it comes to other organizations that share their funding priorities. Ask them about other organizations or foundations that they think may be interested in your work, and don’t be afraid to request an introduction to a good point of contact.  

4. Offer to keep the funder in the loop about your organization. 

Fundraising is a long game, so it’s important to be persistent when building a relationship with a grantmaker. As part of your stewardship efforts, you might offer to send periodic updates about your organization’s work or seek to connect with a potential funder through a site visit or a networking event. As a result, they may better understand your work – and your alignment with their interests – the next time you request funding. 

5. Refine your prospecting strategy. 

Sometimes, a “No” truly is a “No.” If a program officer makes this explicit, it is not going to do you any good to persist—and may harm your organization’s reputation if you do!

However, this does not mean there isn’t something to learn from the scenario. Reflect on where you misunderstood your organization’s alignment with the funder’s interest, and use this to refine your prospecting strategy so that you can focus on grant opportunities that you are more likely to win. 

Consider this example: A nonprofit organization focused on providing services to people who are unhoused submits a grant request to a funder with a broad priority of “housing security”. The request is declined, and after following up to ask for feedback from the program officer, the organization learns that this grantmaker invests in advocacy and systems change organizations rather than those providing direct services. With this information, the nonprofit refines its prospecting strategy to ensure that in the future it pursues grant opportunities with a clear interest in funding direct services. 

The bottom line: In order to build a grant program, you are going to hear “No.” But do not despair! Your next steps will make all the difference when it comes to building relationships and refining your grantseeking strategy. And, sometimes you can make bad news work for you! 


For more on how to make the most out of a declination, check out this article on Candid. Relatedly, see our blogs on “5 Reasons to Cultivate Relationships with Funders” and “5 Ways to be Pleasantly Persistent with Funder Cultivation.”  

November 21, 2019

November is National Gratitude Month. But, what does gratitude mean exactly? And specifically, what does it mean for us as fundraisers?

As professionals in the nonprofit sector, practicing meaningful gratitude with our donors may seem more complicated than how we practice it in our personal lives. Unlike showing and returning kindness with friends and family, which tends to feel more like second nature, practicing gratitude with institutional funders might seem more forced or complicated. This may have to do with the formal structures around foundation’s giving programs, or even the perceived distance between us and our funders.

I’d like to argue that practicing gratitude with your institutional funders can be easy, meaningful, and even fun.

To support you in growing your foundation gratitude initiatives, I’ve compiled my top five suggestions of ways to show gratitude to foundation funders. In taking these steps, your organization will open opportunities to steward partnerships with your institutional funders to new depths and perhaps in turn drive further impact (and kindness) together.

1. See you later, boring thank you letter

Believe me, I have sent a foundation that stale, mail-merged acknowledgement letter. It makes sense when you’re running a batch of thank you letters to partially customize the general thank you letter for a foundation (all you really have to do is remember to remove the tax-deductible language, right?) and get it out the door. But to truly show gratitude through this communication, I recommend that you take the extra 30 minutes to write a highly-customized thank you letter to each foundation funder. Add details that link back to what the grant will support, your proposed impact, and appreciation for the process, insight, and investment the foundation has provided your organization. Emily Post would be happy to have me recommend and additional handwritten thank you note to send following the formal organizational thank you letter. If it feels right to you, I think it can be a nice touch.

2. Hello, public acknowledgements

Publicly acknowledging your funders is an easy way to demonstrate gratitude. Some funders have strict guidelines for using their name/logo publicly, so be sure to check your award documentation before giving them a shout out. Additionally, reaching out to the foundation to ask them about your public acknowledgement ideas (listing on your website? plaque on the wall? logo in a program book?) is another natural way to continue your demonstration of gratitude. Many organizations miss this easy type of opportunity to demonstrate gratitude for their foundation funders because there is often a preconceived (and possibly incorrect!) notion that foundations don’t want to be recognized in this way.

Another creative publicity avenue you might consider: including a feature in your organization’s newsletter or annual report that highlights a specific foundation, and how their investment advanced your program or initiative.

3. Not your average grant report

Grant reports can feel very formulaic. But what if we used them as both an opportunity to demonstrate our organization’s efficiency and impact, but also infuse them with gratitude? I am not suggesting that your formal grant reports to your foundation funders turn sappy or over the top, but rather asking you to recognize that the grant reporting process as an appropriate point to remember and practice gratitude. Beyond the formal report, perhaps this could be a point, at the end of a grant period, to send the Emily Post style handwritten note (or email, I suppose) that reflects on the impact of the grant and why you are thankful for that investment in your organization.

4. Won’t you be our guest?

Does your organization have an annual fundraising event? Gala? Breakfast? Have you invited your foundation funders as your guests? Yes, foundation funders, board members, and program officers are invited to many more events than they can (or want to) attend. However, extending the invitation is a great opportunity to demonstrate gratitude. Let your funders know why you are inviting them (will there be a presentation on the program they are funding? will they have an opportunity to hear from program participants directly? are you launching a new program that would be of interest to them?) and in most cases, make sure they know that you want them to attend without purchasing a ticket or sponsorship. If your funder RSVPs “yes”, make sure you have a plan to appropriately welcome them and have opportunities to engage with them during the event.

5. Come by for coffee

Finally, beyond an invitation for your event, is there an opportunity to thank your foundation funders in person? I think there can be! Even in cases where a funder came out for a site visit within the last year (or more, depending on the length of the grant period), a year might be a bit too long to go without an update or demonstrated gratitude from your organization.

Look for original/exciting opportunities to invite your foundation funders to your organization. Sometimes because of the formal processes around applying for and winning grant funds, we forget that there are actual people sitting down to write those checks – and that maybe they would enjoy sitting down for a cup of coffee and hearing what that means to your participants and your organization.

Don’t get me wrong, there comes a point when you will feel that you are over-thanking your donors and its ok to stop the thank you train. What I am not proposing is that you do everything on this list at all times for all funders; what I am proposing is that as an organization or fundraising department, you think on a deeper level about how you thank your foundation funders.

I hope that you found a helpful tidbit in here to strengthen your organization’s practice of gratitude, now in November, and throughout the year. Keep that gratitude going!

September 24, 2019

Dozens of Elevate clients experience executive transitions every year. To help our clients better understand how to engage funders throughout the process, we’ve partnered with Carlyn Madden, a search consultant and former grantmaker based in the Washington, DC region, on a three-part series to highlight the challenges and opportunities of executive transitions.

In this post, we’ll hear advice from funders in the DC region about how nonprofits can engage before, during and after an executive transition.

Thanks for following along over the last few weeks to learn how you can successfully manage (and even strengthen) funding relationships during an executive transition. For previous posts, check in with Part 1 and Part 2 of the series.


Prompt, consistent, and transparent communication is critical to engage funders throughout an executive transition process.

This summer, search consultant Carlyn Madden connected with three funders in the DC region. In discussing what makes for successful executive transitions, common pitfalls for nonprofits to avoid, and strengthening funder relationships throughout the transition period, this blog post draws upon experiences of professionals working in a variety of capacities with private and family foundations.

Special thanks to Julian Haynes, the Maryland Program Director at the Meyer Foundation; Mary Mulcahy and Tobi Printz Platnick, Associate Directors at The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation; and Julia Baer Cooper, Philanthropic Advisor at SARC Consulting for sharing their perspectives on this topic.

On successful traits, common pitfalls, and internal candidates:

“The most successful transitions don’t come as a surprise to funders. If an executive director announces their transition alongside a request for funding to support that transition, I’m not often able to be as helpful as I could if we had been in an ongoing dialogue. I often check in with grant partners about their transition and succession plans during periodic meetings or site visits. Because we have established trust and candor, we’re able to have open and transparent conversations about the process. We had a recent example of a founder-led nonprofit that we’ve supported over the years. The founder and I discussed her need to get staffing structured in a way that would allow her to step back from the day-today, and ultimately transition. We provided funding toward a sabbatical, which gave the E.D. a needed break and allowed them to begin making a plan with their board and small staff. For me, this is a great example of when there is a trusting partnership between the funder and the nonprofit, it is easier for the transition to go smoothly.”
Julia Baer Cooper, Philanthropic Advisor, SARC Consulting

“There has been more than one instance of us finding out about an executive transition by someone forwarding me the job posting. It is not every day that an E.D. leaves, willingly or otherwise. So while often not a shock, I do expect to hear the news from the board. A mass email or something personalized – it doesn’t make a difference. The most important thing is that we are made aware of the situation. Very often, an E.D. or senior staff member who has left an organization will reach out to us directly, so it’s in the board’s best interest to frame the narrative quickly to stay ahead of any rumors.”
Tobi Printz Platnick, Associate Director, The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation

“It’s best when grantees are upfront and transparent with funders as early as possible. We like to see board leadership and a robust search committee engaged in the process. A thoughtful, thorough approach will identify new leadership to take the nonprofit where they want to go. That said, boards are often compelled to look for bright and shiny external candidates, missing an opportunity to consider inside talent. An internal candidate who knows what works and what doesn’t can do a lot for an organization’s culture and stability.”
Julian Haynes, Program Director for Maryland, Meyer Foundation

“One example of a well-planned leadership transition would be an Executive Director reaching out to me to say, ‘I just announced to the board that I’m leaving in six months. There is a succession plan already in place. I’ve made myself available to advise the board, but I won’t be a part of the process.’ On some occasions, however, an E.D. calls to share news of their departure, followed by an announcement that they plan to join the board. We’ve seen this set up their successor for failure and cause rapid leadership turnover, ultimately damaging the organization. Another challenging situation can occur when, in response to an unplanned departure, the board gives the job to a current staff member without enough due diligence. Often, the incoming Executive Director is not prepared for the role and lacks a clear understanding of what it takes to be an effective leader.”
Mary Mulcahy, Associate Director, The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation

On the role of the outgoing executive director during a transition:

“When an Executive Director confides in me that they’re planning their departure, I recommend they spend a week keeping track of their “billable hours.” Recording everything they do in 10- or 15-minute increments will help inform their job description. For example, a board might guess that an E.D. spends a third of their time on fundraising, but in reality, the E.D. manages a large federal contract and the time spent is closer to 60 percent. Only the current E.D. will really know this.”
Tobi Printz Platnick, Associate Director, The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation

“A period of overlap with the next executive director can be useful. I think it works best when the departing Executive Director is contracted as an advisor, rather than remaining on the payroll. Nonprofits that won’t be engaging the outgoing E.D. should consider hiring an interim director. Having stable leadership at the helm gives the board time to figure out what type of leader the organization will need moving forward.”
Mary Mulcahy, Associate Director, The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation

“I have seen successful transitions where the outgoing executive director has a limited connection in an advisory capacity. This allows an outgoing E.D. to remain accessible and available when the new E.D. reaches out for institutional knowledge, but do not insert themselves into the day-to-day affairs of the organization.”
Julian Haynes, Program Director for Maryland, Meyer Foundation

“The outgoing executive director’s role totally depends on the nonprofit – there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach. An overlap can help with the hand off, but sometimes this isn’t possible. It is important that the board identify the E.D.’s ongoing relationship as the transition begins and communicate this during the recruitment process. For some nonprofits, having the outgoing E.D. join the board or serve in an advisory capacity makes sense, with deference to the new executive – but in other cases, and depending on personalities and many other dynamics – it’s best if the outgoing E.D. steps away completely so new leadership can flourish.
Julia Baer Cooper, Philanthropic Advisor, SARC Consulting

On getting acquainted with program officers:

“New executive directors should reach out early in their tenure. It’s best for them to introduce themselves by email or phone, and inquire when I’d like to meet. For me, it often depends on where their organization is in our grant cycle, but their other funders might prefer meeting face-to-face early in the relationship.”
Mary Mulcahy, Associate Director, The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation

“I appreciate the opportunity to grab coffee and discuss how I could be helpful beyond grant support to new executive directors. Timing can depend on the grant cycle, but I definitely would like to meet the new leader before I make a recommendation. If it’s off cycle, I leave it up to them – either now or wait a few months for when they feel they have a better grasp of things.
Julia Baer Cooper, Philanthropic Advisor, SARC Consulting

“Outgoing executive directors should ensure that their staff is prepared to brief the incoming E.D. on the details of our relationship, such as deadlines, reporting, and the basics of our last conversation. Many incoming E.D.s come in with strong fundraising backgrounds and know how to use our first conversation to maintain momentum. On the other hand, sometimes things get lost in the shuffle and we see grantees miss reporting and application deadlines because the staff was not given enough guidance to manage the moving parts during the transition.”
Julian Haynes, Program Director for Maryland, Meyer Foundation

On supporting organizations during transitions

“The Meyer Foundation supports grantees experiencing executive transitions, though obviously there are exceptions. Ultimately, pulling funding from an organization when its most vulnerable is completely counter to the way that we think about building grantee capacity. In fact, we have used capacity building grants to support the organization during transition.”
Julian Haynes, Program Director for Maryland, Meyer Foundation

“We typically fund our existing grantees during an executive transition. We are confident in organizations that can outline a process and timeline for a hiring process, but if things seem to be too in flux, we’ll hold the proposal to consider during the next grant cycle when leadership is stabilized. For Cafritz, an executive transition is not the right time for prospective grantees to apply. It is often better to wait until a new leader is in place, and they have been able to put ‘their own mark’ on a funding request.”
– Tobi Printz Platnick, Associate Director, The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation

“In general, I’m not opposed to supporting a nonprofit during a transition, but it depends on their approach. For a larger, well-staffed organization, I expect that it is probably business as usual – programming stays the same, administration and financial management remain constant.  For a small nonprofit, whose executive director wears many hats, the organization may be less stable.  A well-thought out succession plan supports how the board leads through the transition, and assists my case for sustained funding.”
Julia Baer Cooper, Philanthropic Advisor, SARC Consulting

The Meyer Foundation, established in 1944 by Eugene Meyer, an owner and publisher of The Washington Post, and his wife, the author and social activist Agnes E. Meyer, is one of the Washington area’s oldest and largest locally-focused philanthropies. The Foundation’s mission is to pursue and invest in solutions that build an equitable Greater Washington community in which economically disadvantaged people thrive.

The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation is the largest private, independent, local foundation focused exclusively on the Washington, DC metropolitan area. The Foundation is committed to improving the quality of life for residents of the Washington, DC area.

SARC Consulting, founded in 2000, advises foundations on philanthropic investment by assisting clients with long-term planning, grantmaking and program research. SARC provides short-term and project-based assistance for some clients while also serving as quasi-staff in an ongoing long-term relationship with others. SARC helps clients launch new philanthropic ventures and provides continuing support for long-established foundations

Carlyn MaddenPreparing for your nonprofit’s next executive transition? Carlyn is offering Elevate clients a free phone consultation to help plan your next steps – from succession planning to promising recruitment practices. Learn more about her work at www.carlynmaddenconsulting.com.

September 17, 2019

Dozens of Elevate clients experience executive transitions every year. To help our clients better understand how to engage funders throughout the process, we’ve partnered with Carlyn Madden, a search consultant and former grantmaker based in the Washington, DC region, on a three-part series to highlight the challenges and opportunities of executive transitions.

In this post, Carlyn will share tips and tricks for strengthening funder relationships throughout an executive transition. Coming up, we’ll get insights directly from a few funders from the Washington, DC region. To start from the beginning, read Part 1.



A good executive transition is a well-planned executive transition.

Executive transitions are common in the nonprofit sector, with research suggesting that 60%-70% of nonprofit executives planned to leave their jobs within five years. Most nonprofits report feeling unprepared to undertake an executive transition. BoardSource’s 2017 Leading with Intent: A National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices indicates that just roughly one in four nonprofits have a succession plan in place. Unsurprisingly, a lack of preparedness can cause funder relationships to become unstable.

Before consulting, I spent close to a decade managing grant portfolios and programs. These experiences have provided me with a birds-eye perspective of all types of transitions – from transformational leaders that accelerated their impact to poor placements that drove them out of business; from honoring an incredible founder’s legacy to emergencies following a tragic death.

A well-planned, well-executed executive transition offers nonprofits the opportunity to reflect on the future: the vision, skills, and resources necessary for their next chapter. Funders like to support great leaders – and a thoughtfully planned process is a cornerstone of great leadership.

Below are five pieces of advice I’ve gleaned over the years for how best to sustain your relationships with funders during executive transitions.

1. Don’t let them be the last to know

As a major investor in your nonprofit, they deserve to hear the news from you, not the Washington Post.

After notifying the board about their imminent departure, an outgoing CEO should reach out to their funders. The board chair should lead outreach in cases of sudden departures. Be prepared to introduce a new point of contact for the transition; discuss the process (i.e., if an acting or interim director will be named and/or if a search firm will be hired); any necessary (and truthful) assurances that the programs they have funded will be maintained in the outgoing director’s absence; and the role, if any, the outgoing CEO will play for the organization following their departure.

2. Inquire about capacity building grants

With enough advance notice, some funders can support a grantee’s transition costs.

As a funder, I could recommend discretionary grants to support one-off projects or increase an award during the regular grant cycle. Could one of your funders help with transition costs, such as search consultant fees? It never hurts to ask, as it indicates that your nonprofit is serious about managing the transition. It is important to request the right amount at the right time, so speak to a few consultants in advance to understand project fees and speak to your program officer about the process before preparing a formal inquiry.

3. Consider an interim director

An experienced interim executive director gives funders assurance about your nonprofit’s stability.

Interims are typically seasoned nonprofit executives who oversee key management and programmatic functions during the transition, while also helping the board assess the skills necessary for its next leader. Their costs are in the same range of an executive director’s salary with an engagement ranging from 6 to 18 months. Consider inquiring with funders to connect you to grantees who could make a referral. In the DC region, the Interim Directors Network is a great resource.

4. Tap into knowledge and networks

Funders work with dozens—if not hundreds—of nonprofit executives. They might let you tap into their network of qualified candidates.

Many, but not all, funders have warm, open grantee relationships. Inquire if your search consultant could include your program officer in their stakeholder interviews. Pass along the job posting, along with a request to distribute it within their network. Funders are well connected, and many are happy to circulate information about your search. However, this should be the extent of the collaboration–your funder should not influence the board’s hire.

5. Introduce new leadership early

Your funders are excited for your next chapter and will look forward to meeting your new hire.

Make sure your outgoing CEO has left great notes about the status of the relationship in your donor database and have development staff brief the incoming CEO on any pertinent talking points. It will be helpful for the new CEO to read through past proposals and reports. When the board chair shares the official announcement and a personal introduction, it reinforces the board’s commitment to the process. Take the lead from the funder on next steps – setting up an in-person meeting to begin building the relationship if they make themselves available.

But what if they won’t fund us during a transition?

Some funders pause grantmaking during executive transitions.

Some funders use what Vu Le, author of Nonprofit AF, calls a “wait and see” approach, withholding grants until new leadership is in place. While a frustrating practice, it becomes that much more important to steward funder relationships during the transition. Inquire about what updates they would appreciate, make sure they receive your newsletters, and make a personal introduction to a new, if just temporary, point of contact. Involving other staff decentralizes the cultivation process and reassures funders that your competent staff is operating as usual with little negative impact on your nonprofit’s performance.

Stay tuned for the final post in this series, where we’ll get advice directly from funders about their views on managing relationships during executive transitions.

Carlyn MaddenPreparing for your nonprofit’s next executive transition? Carlyn is offering Elevate clients a free phone consultation to help plan your next steps – from succession planning to promising recruitment practices. Learn more about her work at www.carlynmaddenconsulting.com.

September 10, 2019

Dozens of Elevate clients experience executive transitions every year. To help our clients better understand how to engage funders throughout the process, we’ve partnered with Carlyn Madden, a search consultant and former grantmaker based in the Washington, DC region, on a three-part series to highlight the challenges and opportunities of executive transitions.

In this post, Carlyn will help us examine different types of transitions. In future posts, she will share tips and tricks of how to strengthen funder relationships before, during and after executive transitions and we’ll gain insights directly from funders in the Washington, DC region.

Follow along over the next few weeks to learn how you can successfully manage (and even strengthen) funding relationships during an executive transition.


Each nonprofit is unique. Each executive transition will be different.

The grantmaking community has a saying, “Once you’ve met one foundation, you’ve met… one foundation.” I think you’ll agree that no two foundations are alike.

I would argue that the same can be said about nonprofits. For example, one education nonprofit is usually vastly different than its peers – different curriculum and different approaches; different client focus and communities served; different business model and financial resources.

Each nonprofit also has different executives with different tenures, leadership styles, and ideas about how their transition will play out.

According to BoardSource, the U.S. leader in nonprofit governance tools and resources,  “the type of transition influences the challenges involved and the strategy the board will adopt to manage the process…” Identifying the specific type of transition an organization is experiencing can help staff more effectively understand its nuances, manage the transition’s challenges, and capitalize on its unique opportunities.

BoardSource uses an extensive range of tools, resources, and research data to increase board effectiveness and strengthen organizational impact. The graphic below outlines BoardSource’s five classic examples of leadership transitions. Click through to read more about considerations for each type of transition.

Once you understand the type of transition you’re experiencing and start to plan your executive transition, we invite you to consider these questions in context with your unique situation.

  • Has your board approved a succession policy and a plan to handle sudden and planned transitions? Is your nonprofit covered in case of an emergency?
  • Has the board recently reviewed executive’s job description and compensation? What additional financial resources may be necessary to attract a new CEO?
  • How well organized is your nonprofit’s donor database? Is information about the status of different grants and funder relationships easily accessible to the new CEO?
  • Who will manage the organization’s existing funder relationships during the transition? What steps will be taken to maintain communication following the CEO’s departure?
  • Is a stakeholder communications plan in place to reassure funders that the transition will have minimal disruption to the organization’s programs?


Stay tuned for our next post where Carlyn will share some tips to manage funder relationships during executive transitions.

Carlyn MaddenPreparing for your nonprofit’s next executive transition? Carlyn is offering Elevate clients a free phone consultation to help plan your next steps – from succession planning to promising recruitment practices. Learn more about her work at www.carlynmaddenconsulting.com.

June 26, 2019

As a non-profit, chances are pretty good you follow a familiar pattern to generate funds. The annual mega-fundraiser is crucial, and you rely on grants to support key programs. Maybe you’ve even found an elusive corporate sponsor to provide some additional stability.

You do it because it seems to work well enough, and you know it’s a good idea to have diversified revenue streams to reduce risks to sustainability. Wouldn’t it be nice, though, to have more consistency and predictability—and the ability to keep expanding your base?

What Most Nonprofits Get Wrong

There’s another source to explore—one that non-profits often overlook.  Individual donors can provide continuous, reliable funding that grows over time.  However, many organizations don’t invest resources in pursuing recurring contributions in any meaningful, systematic way.

Instead of tailoring their approach, they target everyone using the old annual appeal, or a combination of the traditional newsletter and updates on a variety of social media platforms. These efforts target broad, generic audiences, and they fail to engage current or prospective donors in ways that develop lasting, rewarding, personal relationships. In the end, not enough of the “right people” are hearing what non-profits have to say. And, if they do, it’s going in one ear and out the other.

Shifting Your Mentality, and Getting Personal

Nonprofits that take this approach are effectively viewing donors as objects rather than as people.  It’s easy to see existing and potential contributors primarily as cash, checks and credit cards—not as individuals with interests, preferences, and personalities.

It’s understandable—that’s the way it’s always been done. But not knowing who’s behind the money can make it incredibly difficult to connect with prospective and existing donors on a personal level. Even the most experienced nonprofit professionals can struggle to determine who they should be approaching, how to effectively reach their audiences, or what messages will resonate with them.

The solution? Get familiar with the donor pool!

The concept is simple: Find out who’s most likely to donate, where they get their information, and what makes them tick. Then, target those people through customized media and messaging over the entire life cycle from initial contact to conversion to retention.

In practice, it is more of a strategic commitment for non-profits than what many are doing now, but the returns are entirely worth it. The inevitable question, of course, is how to go about this.

5 Keys to Developing Tailored Messaging That Resonates with Your Donors


  • CollectingHaving high-quality data on the demographics, economics, psychographics, and behaviors of your donors and prospects is critical. If you can obtain information on the donor pool, you can segment the population and estimate both giving potential and likelihood of contributing.  This is how you “meet the people.” Explore your current donors first, and then expand to the general public through surveys and/or focus groups.


  • ProfilingThe data you collect can allow you to profile selected segments by building representative donor “personas” of individuals you want to engage. This is how you get to know the people you want to “befriend.” Give them a face and a name, and lay out the details using the information you’ve gathered. Test your profiles by running them by subsets of the segments they represent.


  • MappingPersonas provide foundational “journey maps,” which describe individuals’ status, thoughts, and feelings, and identify opportunities to facilitate their progression from contact to conversion to retention. This is how you “walk with the people” as they become familiar you’re your non-profit.  Get a team together, grab some sticky notes, and have some fun with it!


  • CustomizingThe journey maps will inform your outreach approach, guiding the content, format, media, incentives, calls to action, access points, etc. at key milestones.  This is “leading the people” to introduce yourself and the problem, make them want to learn about you, help them to help you, and give them what they need to give again.  Focus on reaching, informing, and making things easy for your target audiences.


  • MeasuringYou’ll want to know when your strategy is successful and adjust it when it’s not. By using web-based platforms (e.g., Google Analytics, HubSpot) it’s relatively easy to gather and analyze metrics on, for example, who’s viewing your content and how they’re responding. If something isn’t working—if you’re not connecting, the messages aren’t resonating, or people aren’t following through—fix it.  A little fine-tuning goes a long way.


How does this look in practice?

One nonprofit focused on poverty did this by asking its current donors how best to connect with them, segmented the audience, and then handed things over to teams comprising internal staff and external “customers” to create “snapshots” of the most promising groups—names, faces, and personal “stories.”  These teams then “walked the walk,” stepping through each prospect’s journey from contact to conversion to retention.  Marketing and Development took the resulting maps to design and execute targeted outreach strategies, focusing on messaging, media, and delivery channels they were confident would reach and resonate with prospects.  Pushing out “before-and-after” stories through videos, blogs, and other media to the social platforms these audiences used was a key part of the approach,  and the organization more than doubled contributions the next year.

Personalized “relationship marketing” changes the individual donor game for non-profits. It makes it easier to forecast with confidence and helps to maximize gifts that keep on giving.  And, it works for nonprofits of all sizes.  While it’s a big undertaking and it’s helpful to have a dedicated, innovative Marketing and Development staff, that isn’t completely necessary—with a little outside help, even smaller organizations can do this with executive leadership and program personnel.

For many organizations, individual donations can be a significant part of a diversified funding strategy, even if the results haven’t been there in the past. Let’s face it. Newsletters often tend to go unopened and tweets get lost in the crowd. But investing in a targeted individual giving strategy can have a significant return on investment.

There’s money to be had, but there are faces, names, and personalities behind each dollar. Taking the time to get to know them leads not only to more dollars raised for your programs, but also to strong, long-lasting relationships with your donors.

What to do next:

Read our article on this topic, Anatomy of a Non-profit Donor
View the related presentation, Targeting and Retaining Better, Long-lasting Donors 
Contact us at info@snowflakellc.com or +1.540.931.9943
Visit us on the web: www.snowflakellc.com
Follow us on Twitter: @snowflakellc

Tom MorleyTom Morley is Founder, President, and Managing Director of Snowflake LLC, a Certified B Corporation® consultancy dedicated to helping organizations transform lives and build communities through strategic planning and organization, people, and marketing strategies.  He worked for more than 15 years as a senior leader with “Big 4” firms BearingPoint and Deloitte Consulting before launching Snowflake in 2014, with the goal of collaborating with non-profits, governments, and responsible businesses to bring about social change.  Over the course of his career, he has worked with over 75 different clients across sectors and industries, in the US and abroad, advising and supporting them in their efforts to accomplish greater things for the greater good.

For information on Snowflake, please visit www.snowflakellc.com or e-mail info@snowflakellc.com.

JUNE 13, 2017

In the grant writer’s world of deadlines and word counts, it can be easy to forget that fundraising is about building relationships. And just like any relationship, the grantee-grantor relationship takes work.

When advising clients about strategies to cultivate and steward prospective or current donors, I like to encourage them to be “pleasantly persistent” in communicating with their point of contact. It is a fine balance: you want to come across as personable, credible, and eager to collaborate without being obnoxious. It’s a lot like dating, really.

Sometimes after an introductory meeting with a foundation there is a mutual desire to keep in touch, but no clear opportunity to submit a funding request at the current point in time. Or perhaps you have an existing donor from which you hope to secure a renewal grant next year. In both cases, it is important to stay on their radar.

Here are five suggestions for ways to be “pleasantly persistent” and keep your point of contact interested in your organization’s work to secure that invitation to apply or upgraded renewal grant next year.

1. Keep them engaged, and add a personal touch.

Invite your point of contact to your organization’s annual conference or any other relevant events you have throughout the year. Send a personal invitation – not just the standard email everyone receives – and always offer to comp the registration fee. For conferences with multiple sessions to choose from, offer a personalized itinerary with suggestions for which sessions she may be most interested in attending (be sure those sessions are likely to have the best speakers and most relevant content!) When at the event, remember to be a good host. Be sure that your contact is engaged and having a good time. If you are too busy coordinating the event, assign a staff member to thank her for attending.

2. Share relevant news.

When you come across an article that involves your shared professional interests, or if you or your organization are featured in an article, send your point of contact a link via email. Include a short personal note indicating you thought he might be interested in the item. Perhaps new research has just been released on a topic of mutual interest, or you’ve just read a magazine article that is relevant to a previous conversation you’ve had. Don’t overuse this tactic, and be sure the article or link is both recent and truly likely to be of interest to the recipient before hitting “send”.

3. Make sure they’re receiving key collateral (if they’re interested).

Share your organization’s newsletters or press releases – but only if they are truly newsworthy and include information that is relevant to the funder’s interests. It is always a good idea to include a personal note indicating why you thought she may be interested in seeing the item.

4. Send personal updates as they happen.

Did you just snap a great photo of your program in action or hear a compelling new anecdote from a constituent? While you should absolutely include these in an annual grant report, you don’t have to wait for the report to let your funder know about the great work you are doing. Send a short email with a fun and interesting program update to keep your point of contact in the loop. If you are still in the cultivation phase and the funder has not yet contributed to your organization, this can be a great way to keep them informed of your good work in the community.

5. Ask for their insight.

In many cases, foundation program officers are experts in the field in which they are making philanthropic contributions, and they are almost always well connected within the philanthropic community through affinity groups and grantmaker associations. Don’t be afraid to ask for their advice. They may have good insight about potential collaborators in the field, new programmatic models, or professional development opportunities for you or your staff. People love being asked for their advice; this is a great way to get to know the person, demonstrate your desire to improve your program, and learn from their expertise.

Are you “pleasantly persistent” in cultivating and stewarding donors? What other strategies do you use to develop relationships with funders? We’d love to hear your ideas! Let us know on Facebook or Twitter.