For Grant Seeking Success, Get Good at Building Relationships

As a development director, chances are high that you have a prospect research spreadsheet that’s beautifully color-coded, categorized, and diligently updated. You’ve put in the time to find foundations likely to support your mission, but despite the intense labor of love, you’re no closer to detangling the web of prospect research — or securing meaningful funding for your organization.

But that’s the thing: Successful grant seeking isn’t about prospect research — not alone, anyway. Don’t get us wrong, you need to identify aligned foundations that are most advantageous for your organization to partner with for a successful funding strategy; and prospect research has a time and a place. But to put your organization in the best position for funding, relationship building is essential. 

So set your spreadsheet aside for a moment. Your carefully crafted prospect list has value — but not as much as developing real human connections. 

First Thing First: The Truth About Contacting Foundations

While prospect research provides the blueprint, cultivating authentic relationships is the primary key that unlocks funding potential. It transforms you from a faceless stranger into a trusted partner in the eyes of decision-makers. Prioritizing meaningful conversations over cold submissions will lead you to grant success every time.

That’s easier said than done, of course. We’ve all shied away from making those critical calls, anxious about rejection or wasting a program officer’s time. But here’s the truth: program officers want to build relationships with organizations that align with their mission and meet their criteria. And they know you want to connect.

With limited funds to award, program officers laser-focus on groups with the best chance of securing grants. That may mean getting the cold shoulder if your work doesn’t match their priorities. But fear of rejection cannot deter you. This relationship-building requires tenacity.

Let Your Mission Fuel and Focus Your Prospect Research

By now, you might be thinking, “Great, but where do I start?” The answer is simple: Start by getting clear on your organization’s theory of change. It’s the bedrock on which your mission rests and will guide who you are and who you are not as an organization. 

Clarity around your mission and theory of change prevents precious time wasted on chasing unproductive leads. It allows you to focus on the prospects who really matter to your organization’s mission — and can wholeheartedly get behind what you’re doing.

Need help narrowing down what types of foundations are more likely to support your mission? Start with our Appeal Spectrum Tool. 

Vetting and Researching Qualified Prospects to Make the Right Match

When building relationships, identifying right-fit foundations is just the tip of the iceberg. Comprehensive prospect research is essential to unearth the matches that have the greatest relationship-building potential. This requires digging deep to truly understand specific funders, like their funding history, key decision-makers, and ideal contact strategies.

The next vital step is qualifying prospects by learning details. Find out as much as you can about who else they’ve funded in your space, what types of projects won their support, and their overall funding philosophy. Foundation websites are treasure troves of intel, offering insights into strategic priorities and partnerships. Foundation Center, Guidestar, and other organizations make it easy to find information from funders’ federal tax filings, 990 forms.  

Once promising prospects start to emerge, leverage connections for warm introductions whenever possible. Who can link you to this foundation? Tap your networks, board members, and colleagues to find pathways for personal outreach. 

As you strive to make connections, don’t underestimate the power of LinkedIn (our personal go-to). The platform is a treasure trove of network connections and mutual contacts, making it an essential tool in your relationship-building arsenal. Using LinkedIn means you shouldn’t have to only rely on cold outreach; instead, tap your mutual connections for a warm introduction or endorsement. This not only increases your credibility but also improves the chances of gaining positive attention.

Relationship Cultivation From Conversation to Collaboration

An introduction is just the starting point. The real work begins in nurturing the budding relationship. Listen closely to learn about current needs and challenges. Share your own story authentically, even inviting potential funders to your programmatic events so they can learn more about the impact you’re making. Identify shared values and visions to cultivate an emotional bond, because at the end of it all, people give money to people. 

With consistent nurturing, these relationships will strengthen over time. We’ve seen relationships take off quickly, but some can take up to 18 months before an organization is invited to submit a proposal. The payoff for all this diligent relationship-building is stronger grant submissions, useful insider insights, and ideally, moving-the-needle funding for your mission.

Why Relationships Rule in Grant Seeking

As a grant seeker, think of your role as twofold – using research to identify the right people and then focusing your energies on building relationships with these identified individuals. It’s through these relationships that trust is forged, credibility established, and doors for successful collaborations open.

After thorough prospect research provides the landscape, steel yourself and open communication channels. Be bold in proactively pursuing contacts. With a compelling mission and persuasive personal outreach, you can start meaningful conversations that position your organization as a promising partner, not just another applicant.

Lean into listening during these exchanges. Let program officers articulate needs and priorities while you identify shared values and potential for impact. With authentic engagement, you plant seeds that blossom into relationships, transforming strangers into collaborators working together toward change. So do the research, but then pick up the phone. 

That human touch can unlock the funding you need.