Funders and Nonprofits: Let’s Figure Out How to Talk With One Another

I remember the first time I asked a funder for money. I was new to the nonprofit sector and doing direct service. In my “free time,” I was working with a couple of other community leaders to launch a new nonprofit. I had never written a proposal before, but I was so passionate about the mission of our new organization that I just jumped right in, certain that we could convince any foundation to support our noble cause.

We made it past the initial stage, and our program officer reached out to schedule a meeting. Upon meeting with her, she ripped my proposal to shreds. By this, I don’t mean that she offered constructive criticism. She truly told me exactly how bad the proposal was, everything I had done wrong, and she didn’t cut me any slack – despite the fact that she knew I was working to launch this new organization on the side. It was so unfortunate that this was my first experience interacting with a funder because I then had a deep-seated fear of asking for money for a long, long time. (That fear didn’t stop me from continuing to ask, but it sure didn’t make it very comfortable.)

Now, with many more years of experience behind me, I can only imagine what the program officer must have been thinking. At the time, I was indignant that she would be so cruel. Now, I am certain that what I was experiencing was the exhaustion and frustration of yet another well-intentioned person – someone who was asking for support but didn’t have a fully developed plan, nor the language or skills to truly explain the impact that our work would make. Essentially, if I was asking for that amount of money, I should have known better.

Two weeks ago, I attended a rural community meeting that brings funders and community based organizations together. It is a terrific opportunity to have an open, candid dialogue. But funders expressed frustration that the nonprofit organizations weren’t asking for what they needed. Some of this was fear-based, and some of it was because these organizations are so used to “doing more with less” that they’re not accustomed to asking for help or support. And then I realized: we actually need to talk to each other about how to have that conversation. It would have been incredibly helpful if, back when I started my nonprofit organization, someone had coached me about how to talk with a foundation, about what they need to hear (and not hear) and just generally cultivate the relationship. Sometimes, all we really need is a reminder to return to the basics of relationship management and communication. If only everything could be that easy!

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