OCTOBER 19, 2017

Board involvement is essential to organizational advancement, especially when it comes to institutional fundraising.

Members of your organization’s Board of Directors may be able to help identify philanthropists or foundation staff that they meet in their professional circles or at networking events, or by promoting their organizations among new funders through emails and meetings. These connections and personal introductions can be invaluable in the grant seeking process, but it’s equally important to set your Board members up for success by giving them what they need to help you in return.

Below are some specific ways Board members can play a role in the success of your grants program, along with some suggestions for how Development staff can equip them for success.

Stages of Board Cultivation in the Grant Seeking Process

1. Identify Prospective Funders

Development staff can prepare board members for success by sharing the staff and board lists of potential funders—including private foundations, corporate charitable giving, or occasionally “giving circles” operated by volunteers—regularly to leverage existing connections. Some boards prefer to share these intermittently via email, while others will compile lists to share and review during regular board or committee meetings.

Board members have a few options to quickly review their networks. An active LinkedIn network can be immensely helpful, but don’t forget about other social sites like Facebook, Twitter, or alumni associations.

2. Determine Strongest Existing Person-to-Person Connection

At this stage, opportunities for Board support may be broadly described as “access”. Along with their time and talent, robust personal networks are one of the greatest assets a Board member can lend to a nonprofit organization. If a board member knows someone or feels comfortable calling on a mutual acquaintance to set up an introductory meeting, this step can go a long way to improve the likelihood of an accepted proposal.

As staff share lists of foundation personnel or board members who are involved in the funding decision-making process, board members should dedicate time to review to determine whether they have any primary or secondary connections. LinkedIn can be a great tool for this—as well as Facebook or Twitter—but also consider other networks like alumni associations, other boards they might serve on, previous employers, current colleagues, etc.

Even in the sometimes-impersonal area of institutional fundraising, people want to work with people they know and trust. It is human nature to be more likely to respond to an email or return a call from a friend or a trusted colleague, as opposed to an unexpected cold call.

3. Leveraging Relationships to Introduce Your Organization

Staff or board connections are ideal, but occasionally—particularly corporate funders with charitable opportunities—simply finding someone who works tangentially with the target funder can be very helpful.

For example, most financial institutions are required to give a certain amount of revenue to support charitable activities. Many of these application processes are open to all requests, and often ask if the applicant organization has an employee connection. However, proposals that include a contact’s name may be more likely to advance in the review process.

Even if an organization can’t find an immediate connection to the person who reviews applications for funding requests, listing a person who is familiar with your work (e.g. VP of Community Relations, a branch manager, account manager, board member of the bank itself, a long-term volunteer, etc.), they can act as an “internal champion” for your organization. This is incredibly helpful! Sometimes this means that the proposal reviewer may call or meet with this person to ask a few questions or get their general impression of the applicant, other times the board member or development staff may share an email template describing the organization’s work as sort of an informal “letter of support “that the contact can forward to the proposal reviewer.

Sometimes, even if you identify a contact with whom you have a strong relationship, they may not always feel comfortable being this “internal champion”. Either they are new at their organization, they don’t know a lot about you, or perhaps they feel like they’ve already used up their influence advocating for another organization. That’s okay! Consider an easier request that doesn’t ask quite so much of the person, such as simply introducing you to the staff involved in the charitable giving department or simply sharing the name/email/contact info of that staff member so development staff can reach out directly.

This process is also helpful for corporations who have Community Social Responsibility or charitable giving departments and many law firms.

Sample Questions for Board Members to Ask Contacts:

  • Do you know anyone at the Foundation or Corporate funder? If not directly, could you help us find a name or email, maybe in a staff directory?
  • Can I tell you a bit more about our organization and the work we do in the community?
  • What other sort of programs or projects does your organization prefer to support?
  • Can I introduce you to our Executive Director or other staff?
  • If we apply to this funder, would you feel comfortable if we included your name in our proposal?
  • Does your organization require an invitation to apply? If so, can you tell me the process for getting the invitation?
  • Can I sign you up for our email newsletter to keep you updated on our work?
4. Solicitation

Depending on the relationship, it may be appropriate for board members to join development staff on a call or with a meeting with their contact. This gives you a chance to learn a bit more about a funder’s priorities. Typically, unless board members feel strongly about their relationship with the contact, this is not the conversation to make the final “ask”. Usually, it’s a chance to talk with the funder and learn how to best position your request (e.g. typical request amount, priority giving areas and trends, program alignment, timing of application, etc.) Generally, the formal ask will be made in the form of a written proposal, submitted either through an online portal, by mail, or by email. Board members may wish to review this final proposal, especially if it includes their name as a direct connection to the funder, but most often this is not necessary.

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