Tips for Seeking First-Time Support

Nonprofits approaching a foundation for support for the first time often are asked, "Who else is at the table?" That's because foundations and corporate grantmakers are more likely to fund a program or project that others have deemed worthy of support. Not only does it simplify the due diligence process, it makes it easier for a program officer to demonstrate to senior leadership and/or the board that the program or project will be fully funded.

But as any grantwriter or development professional knows, it's not easy to get a funder to actually sit at the table. Here are a few tips designed to help you demonstrate to potential first-time funders that your project or program merits their support:

Craft a strong needs statement. Just as the right music is important at any dinner party, a well-crafted needs statement is critical when seeking first-time support. It's the piece of the proposal that sets the mood and demonstrates how well your organization understands the underlying problem it is working to address. Spare no expense in making sure you have a good one.

Don't forget about letters of support. One metric that nonprofits often fail to mention is the number of letters of support they receive and the time it took to solicit those letters. For example, you might mention in your proposal that, "We asked members of the community to send letters of support on behalf of the project and in just two weeks we received more than two thousand." (Good for you!) If the funder doesn't discourage the submission of additional materials, you might even want to include a few of the best as attachments to your application -- especially if those letters demonstrate financial or volunteer support or tell a story that supports your needs statement.

Don't hide your volunteers under a bushel. What's better than a letter of support?  Sweat equity. Being able to show that members of the community are pulling together with their time and talents is worth its weight in gold. Be meticulous in documenting the amount of volunteer time already allocated to the program or project and put a dollar value on it. (Independent Sector updates that information every year and provides it in a user-friendly table on its Web site.) And if a professional in the community has donated time on a pro-bono basis, count her time at her hourly rate rather than the standard volunteer rate.

Show that you have broad support in the community. Have you already started to receive individual donations in support of the project or program? Share the number and amount with the funder. A large number of individual donors can be just as impressive as a sizable grant from a single source.

Solicit matching grants. Ask one of your loyal supporters if it would be willing to put up a matching grant. Matching grants with the potential to double, triple, or even quadruple the value of the original grant are viewed by many funders, first time or otherwise, as an opportunity to leverage their own grant dollars.

Be happy with small grants. You don't have to hit a homerun every time you step up to the plate. Even grants of a few thousand dollars can take your fundraising efforts to the next level. Indeed, sometimes the real value of a grant is the credibility it confers on your program or project.

Cast a wide net. Spending a few hours with a tool like Foundation Directory Online is almost guaranteed to lead you to new prospects. Avenues for identifying new sources of funding in FDO include searching for companies in your geographic area and then clicking on the "grantmaker" tab, or searching grants made to projects similar to yours.  For more search tips, check out the online FDO tutorial.

Prospecting for first-time support is something that even large nonprofits and charities do, so don't be bashful about approaching a funder who has never supported your organization. Once they're actually sitting at the table, they may never want to leave.

What strategies have you used to get first-time support for a project? I'd love to hear them. Use the comments section below....

-- Allison Shirk