Three Big Ideas to Take Your Relationships with Foundations to the Next Level

Pam McAllisterFoundation folks are constantly being pitched, talked at, “worked.” How easy might it be to stand out from the crowd by taking a completely different approach? Here are three big ideas to get you started.

1. Connect without an agenda.

Some years ago, the head of a major foundation spoke at a conference of fundraising professionals. He announced an open-door policy, inviting anyone in the audience to come see him any time for a conversation about social issues, big ideas … anything other than a specific proposal.

Not one person — out of hundreds in the audience — took him up on it.

Not one.

Would you have made the time for a conversation with no immediate payoff? Can you imagine where it might have led?

And what could happen if you began to seek out — or create — such opportunities, starting now?

2. Become a trusted advisor.

Connecting without an agenda could well be the first step toward a long-term relationship of genuine trust and influence — becoming a trusted advisor instead of just another “grantee.”

Building such a relationship requires showing that you understand their ideas and priorities, that you have their best interests at heart, and that you will deal with them honestly.

It means adding value by being a source of reliable information and distinctive ideas.

And it means taking a long-term view, instead of seeing the foundation as a short-term “funding prospect.”

That may seem a big investment of time and energy. And indeed it can be, so you’ll want to choose these relationships wisely. But it could be as simple as one meeting a month with the same or a couple of foundations — carving out just a little time for the big breakthrough.

The results can be huge. You can end up in the enviable position of having a major foundation come to you, instead of the other way around, when there’s something big to be done.

3. Collaborate and co-create.

Most people approach foundations with all their ducks in a row. The program is completely designed. Every question has been answered. All that’s left is to get the money.

That works, of course, at least for ordinary projects. But if you want to go to the next level, it might be time to stick your neck out and take some risks.

A friend of mine did just that a few years ago. Faced with a potentially enormous opportunity, far beyond the ability of his organization to pull off alone, he decided to open up the process of figuring out what to do and how to get it done.

He set up a roll-up-your-sleeves, genuinely co-creative workshop that included foundations, “competitor” nonprofits, and other unlikely partners. Together, they created a larger vision than anyone had thought possible: the largest private land conservation project in U.S. history.

Building on the passion and trust developed in the workshop, the unlikely partners continued to work together and made the vision into reality.

When you learn to collaborate in such a genuine way — to convene “conversations of consequence” — you’ll open up new possibilities for your organization … and for society.

Finally, keep in mind that “they” are human beings.

I’ll always remember the foundation CEO who told a workshop group, with tears in her eyes, how heavily she bore the responsibility of stewarding the foundation’s assets for the benefit of her community. How seriously she took her job. How much thought went into every decision.

And how grateful she was for the organizations that she could count on, the individuals she could work with as true partners. Be one of them, and the rest will take care of itself.


Click here for exclusive “behind the scenes” interviews with people who’ve used these ideas to get real results for their organizations and communities … courtesy of my colleague Jim Lord. (Jim wrote the classic book, The Raising of Money, which I’ve just produced in a new edition.)

Pam McAllister works with progressive social causes and social ventures — showing them how to use imagination and language to change the world. She writes about “the art and science of inspiring people” on her blog. You can also find her on Twitter.

2 Responses to “Three Big Ideas to Take Your Relationships with Foundations to the Next Level”

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  2. Mazarine says:

    Thanks for writing about how to connect with funders. Often we can assume that they don’t know our struggle or have any interest in seeing us as people.

    These are good ways to connect with them on a human level and start to build relationships instead of just going straight to the ask.