Connecting with a funder requires research and preparation. You will need to figure out which funders are right for you and prepare a concise pitch for your project to capture their imagination. You’ll need to be ready to follow that pitch up with a more detailed breakdown of your ask, goals, resources, and implementation.

Here are some common approaches to getting ready to ask a funder for assistance and then approaching them in a way that will make success most likely. Photo by Flickr user John Westrock.

Prepare to approach a funder

1. Do your research

Each funder or funding organization has its own priorities and goals. Learn about these in detail. Then dig deeper by looking at those who run the organization and those who implement the programs of interest to you.

  • Read their website. This will prepare you for your meeting with the funder and help you avoid asking obvious questions. The funder should feel that you are extremely familiar with what they do and why, and that you’ve given thought to how you might fit into that picture.

  • Investigate their past grants. Most foundations will have a list of awards they've given. Look for grants that targeted work that is similar to yours and figure out which program officers worked on them. Many foundations are structured to give each program officer authority over a subject-matter portfolio, making it relatively easy to find out who to contact for your type of project.

  • Research their staff members. Remember: Funding organizations are made up of people — they have a range of professional goals, personal interests, and diverse perspectives. Get a sense of their professional backgrounds, experiences, and networks. Do they have a background in tech, academia, government, or some other sector? What did they study? What volunteer networks or professional associations are they part of? What do they publish about? The goal is to better anticipate what they might care about and the questions they might ask.

  • Get to know their board members. The interests and backgrounds of the board members will provide insight into the foundation's mission. Are there board members whose backgrounds lead you to believe they might be interested in your project? What do they care about? Even if a project doesn't explicitly fit into a foundation's mission, there may be board members who are personally interested and can advocate for funding you.

  • Reach out to others who have received support from the funder. Do you have a friend or know a friendly project that's funded by the organization? Connect with them to see if they can tell you something about the funder’s priorities and process. Can you learn anything about the process, timeline, types of funding, and size of grants given out from your collegues?

2. Prepare your assets

  • Elevator pitch: An elevator pitch is a brief, persuasive speech that you use to spark someone’s interest. It is designed to be extremely short and to-the-point — its name references that fabled scenario where you find yourself in an elevator with the person you’ve been dying to speak with and have only the 20-30 seconds it takes to ride from the ninth floor to the lobby to wow them with our idea. See how to develop an elevator pitch.

  • Pitch deck: A pitch deck is a brief slide deck of 7-12 slides you use to demonstrate the value of your project to funders, institutions, partners, and new communities. This succinct presentation should lay out the argument for your project, review how your project is structured, and conclude with an ask relevant to the situation. See how to develop a pitch deck

  • One-pager: A one-pager is a one or two page summary of what you want to do, why it's important, and how it will impact the space in which you work. This is like a cross between an elevator pitch and a pitch deck, all in a single handout. Read more about how to create one here.

Approach a funder

...without coming off as aggressive or annoying

What's the best way to connect with people in the funding organization?

  • Get a personal connection. It is ideal to ask for an introduction from someone in the funder's network, if possible. Ask that person to lay out why the funder may be interested in talking to your organization and/or suggest specific things for you to talk about. This takes a mental burden off of the funder and may make them more likely to respond.

  • Introduce yourself at a professional event. This technique is especially appropriate if the event you are both attending is one related to your shared interests. Don't ask for support right away; inquire whether there's another way you can connect later, such as a phone call or a coffee meeting.

  • Avoid cold emails if possible. Contacting the funder out of the blue is not ideal. However, sometimes it’s the only way to get yourself in front of the correct contact. Keep the email short and to-the-point: Introduce yourself, write a sentence or two about your work, make a specific ask or ask a question about their program, then request a 15-30 minute phone call, with a few options for times.

Sample questions to ask a funder

When you are planning to meet with with a funder (or just hoping to run into them somewhere), write a mixture of questions related to the foundation's mission and specific to the program officer. Here are some sample questions:

  • What has your board been thinking about lately?

  • What are the biggest gaps you see in the field?

  • My idea is X. Does this fit your program? (Ideally, you have described this in one page and emailed to the funder in advance.)

  • Are there other organizations you fund that might be beneficial collaborators? Is there an obvious "multiplier" effect?

  • What other programs might be a better fit for my work?

  • Can I introduce you to anyone in my network who can provide perspective on X (thing the board is thinking about)?

  • Are there elements that are a good fit that could be the focus of a competitive proposal?

  • Can you say anything about the review process that would help me write a better proposal?

Timeline and next steps

Like any relationship, it takes time to build understanding and trust. Most initial conversations do not lead directly to a grant or an investment — and that's ok.

When you are new to fundraising, it can be hard to get a sense of how long it might take to go from an initial conversation to a funded proposal. Based on the expereinces of the people at the OSAOS meeting, our advice would be to plan on at least nine months of relationship-building and discussion of proposals. The fastest time any of us had expereinced was three months.

If grants are a part of your plan, developing long-term relationships based on sharing perspective with the folks at grantmaking institutions is the best approach.

Other posts in this series offer personal perspective from a former funder, a deeper dive into how to make an ask, and what to do once your proposal is funded!