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Foundation Basics

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We have often heard people say "That's a good idea...lets get a foundation grant for it!" Sometimes it works; foundations continue to be a lifeblood support for community projects. More often, however, such grantseeking ends in disappointment. A little preparation and understanding of the process can make the difference between grant awards and rejection letters.

Below are ideas, mostly our own perceptions of foundation grantwriting, for your use if they appear sensible.

1. Money is there, but.. 

Foundations give many billions of dollars to worthwhile projects yearly, with individual corporate donors adding as much as $17 billion each (thank you, Bill Gates). Grants range from 25 dollars to 25 million dollars...but 80% of the grants are small ($5,000 or less). Plan accordingly.

2. Trader, not beggar. 

Please approach foundations as potential partners in getting a needed job done, rather than folks giving handouts to beggars. I know the urge, when you want a project so badly that begging feels indicated, but consider this: it is not the most productive strategy. It is OK to use strongly emotional descriptions of the need, but whining is out. Put yourself in their shoes: wouldn't you respond better to someone who looked you straight in the eye and said, "Here is the problem....Now we can solve it with my effort and your backing...won't you join me?

Foundations are in the business of distributing money to gain results. You need to provide the second part of that equation, and know that it is honorable to do so.

3. Location, location, location. 

Foundations often restrict their giving to local areas, due to ease of monitoring, local interest areas, familiar and understandable issues, and more potent donor recognition. That's fine if you're in Los Angeles, but poses challenges if you are in rural Superior, Arizona.

You can still appeal to their interests. Just put yourself in the decisionmakers' shoes and see how your project is important nationwide, or for teachers, or as a demonstration. This is what you package.

Interestingly, even in a small, mostly rural county (San Luis Obispo, CA) I was surprised to learn that 14 foundations had filed 990A foundation tax return forms with the IRS. Remember Dorothy's finding that "There's no place like home..."

4. Do your homework. 

This always pays. It shows dividends on many levels, with better targeted proposals, and fewer wasted efforts and misunderstandings. Resources exist in any community, and I pay regular homage to the resource librarians at local county libraries and college libraries. They are creative sages, enthusiastic mentors and willing partners in tracking down resources in print.

The Foundation Center (San Francisco/New York) and its many resource centers is a very strong resource worth investigating. Currently, you can query their CD ROM collection of foundations for grants given for specific types, amounts, interest areas and other parameters, resulting in a short list of targeted institutions for appeals. It's a very powerful tool.

5. Prepare a quality presentation. 

Refine, refine and refine your letter or proposal, and then get someone else to edit it as well. Spell check it but also proof every word. Laser print it, on letterhead, and yes, neatness counts. Only one in ten proposals is destined to be funded so build credibility through professionalism.

By the way, foundation staff are no dummies. They are generally sympathetic folks that know very clearly what the founders support. It is OK to use their goal terminology to tailor your approach, but if you are rewriting your project to fit their needs, generally nobody wins. A straightforward approach usually is your best tactic.

One proposal we reviewed broke all the rules. It was hand written, calligraphed on homemade paper, with little sketches in the corners, asking for an arts grant. We never learned if it got funded, but it caught me 100 per cent.

6. Foundation money is strange money. 

Foundations are the most progressive and the most conservative animals around. Letter proposals sometimes secure huge grants while elegant 100 page proposal packages may get postcard rejections. A single phone call from the right person can mean more than 3 years of audit trail. 

Once obtained, however, foundation grants typically require little more than a letter stating the fulfillment of grant requirements to close the grant. More than once, we have suggested by letter the use of remnants of grants for "Phase 2" and received immediate approval. This is strange for government people, used to multiple layers of request approval. We call this "clean" money, easily and efficiently managed. Few strings are attached, and you can usually get on with doing the project rather than worrying about extensive regulations.

7. Package whenever possible. 

Foundations are only one sliver of the giving pie, and frankly, individual donors far outstrip foundation giving. Corporations also have strong advantages to gain in donation to useful community projects. It is frequently more enticing to deal in challenge match grants, coming up with the required local match for outside dollars, or partnering on a project that yields public relations benefits for both parties. Be creative; mix and match as you can.

8. Care and Feed your Grant. 

Once you have a grant, make sure to keep connections open with the funders. Consult them, report to them., let them know when they are accomplishing things. Cherish them when things work out, involve them when things don't...they are your partners. Think of them like an electronic pet...ignore them and they will go elsewhere.

Oh yes--remember to ask for another grant next year.

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