How to Communicate with Foundations: Clarifying Questions for Grant Fundraising

by | Jun 5, 2024 | Development/Fundraising, Grant Research, Grant Writing


Recently, we’ve been sharing our best tips for how to find well-suited grant prospects for your organization. But what do you do once you’ve got a list of incredible foundation prospects?

Step one is outreach. When connecting with new potential funders, you want to ask several key questions to help you craft a successful proposal and initiate a long-term funding relationship.

So today, we’ll cover the clarifying questions you should ask foundation donors before (and after) submitting a grant.

If you missed our grant research series, you can start here: 9 Expert Tips for Successful Grant Research


When to Approach a Foundation Fundraising Prospect

The best time to reach out to foundation prospects is before you submit a proposal. This allows you to confirm that the foundation is indeed a good funding match. It also allows you to start building relationships with program officers immediately. You can also gather vital insights about a foundation’s priorities to make your grant proposal competitive.

Common reasons to reach out to a foundation are:

  • Your research suggests the foundation is a great prospect for your organization (or a specific program or project). Now, you want to confirm that you are a good fit for the foundation’s current priorities.
  • You were advised to submit a proposal for an upcoming grant cycle. You need clarification on the process, foundation priorities, and/or materials required.
  • A natural disaster or economic crisis may affect a pending proposal. You need clarification regarding the foundation’s funding priorities.
  • You hope to submit a proposal for the foundation’s next grant cycle. Since you already have a relationship, you need to ask clarifying questions to make your proposal as competitive as possible.

In each of these cases, your goal is to get information that makes your fundraising easier and more successful.


How to Find the Right Foundation Contact

Reaching out to a new foundation can be nerve-wracking, especially if you do not have a personal connection (such as a referral from a board member). It helps to remember that a foundation program officer’s job is to connect with grantees. They communicate with other organizations like yours day in and day out. So, even cold outreach will likely not surprise them.

Before picking up the phone or drafting an email, however, be sure you are reaching out to the most suitable person in the foundation. Small foundations may have only one staff member, which makes the choice easier. Larger foundations may have multiple program areas, each with its own staff.

For these larger funders, you can often check out a foundation’s website or annual report to understand which program area suits your organization. You can even review the foundation’s 990-PF. Then, you’ll want to reach out to the person who is the program officer or director of that program area.

However, you can only reach out to one program area at a time. Contacting multiple staff members simultaneously can make your organization seem unfocused and disorganized. Not a great first impression!


Ask These Clarifying Questions to Increase Grant Success Rates


Questions and Language for Initial Foundation Outreach

Once you have connected with the program officer or other appropriate staff member, you will want to:

  • Confirm that the mission and programs the foundation has described publicly represent its current funding priorities or if there are upcoming changes. This is often the case when a foundation or program area has new leadership or a new strategic plan. If possible, during a meeting or call always ask the program officer to talk first so that you can adjust your description as needed.
  • Share a little about your program and impact goals and ask whether they align with the program officer’s goals.

Here is some sample language you can use to get started, particularly if you are reaching out over email:

  • “Based on our prospect research, we feel that we are a good fit for your foundation’s current priorities. Due to current issues in our region, we want to ensure we are still a good fit for your next grant cycle.” [Then go into detail about what makes you a good fit and ask for their confirmation that they agree.]
  • “I found your foundation while conducting grant research for our upcoming program/project/capital campaign. I think our organization is an ideal candidate for your current funding priorities. I’m reaching out, in light of current issues, to clarify if the foundation has changed funding priorities or deadlines.”
  • If there are special grant cycles due to a regional or national situation/disaster, ask about those specifically. “Does our organization qualify for this special funding opportunity? Will this special cycle replace or be in addition to a regular grant cycle?”


Questions for Foundations About the Grant Application Process

Once you have confirmed your organization is a good match, you can ask questions about the actual funding process. For example:

  • “When should I submit a request to be considered for the next grant review cycle?”
  • “If we are selected for funding, when could we expect dollars in-hand?”
  • “If we start the project before funding is in-hand, can we reimburse ourselves for expenses we already spent once funds arrive?”
  • “Would you like to come for a site visit?”
  • Ask about anything that you don’t understand. For example, a foundation may ask for audited financials. If you don’t have audited financials, ask if the foundation will accept a 990 or compilation report (which is less expensive).


Questions for Foundations Once Your Application is Submitted

Once your proposal is submitted, you may still need to ask more questions.

For example, let’s say you submitted a proposal but learned the foundation is pushing the grant cycle to a later date. You will want to specifically ask: “In light of these changes, are there aspects of our proposal that need to be rewritten? Should we adjust our budgets, timelines, or evaluation methods? If so, when is that due?”

Sometimes, foundation grantmaking takes longer than expected. If a program officer had said that the board was meeting to make funding decisions in June, and it is now July, you will need to follow up. Simple language to do this includes:

  • “We recently submitted a proposal and wanted to check on the current process for review and awards. Has your foundation made changes to current priorities in light of the current situation in our region?”
  • “Are proposals still being reviewed on the same timeline?”
  • “Will awards still be distributed on the same timeline?”
  • “When could we expect dollars in-hand should we be selected for funding?”
  • “If proposals are being pushed to a later cycle for review, what is that timeline and award period?”


Ask Questions – But Remember to Listen

The other secret to foundation communications and relationship-building is listening. In many cases, program officers are eager to share more about what their foundation is trying to accomplish through grantmaking. Be sure to listen up and take notes! If a program officer shares that priorities are shifting, be sure your grant proposal speaks to the foundation’s new direction.

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