Foundations – Should they be part of your fundraising strategy in 2017?

In the course of speaking with almost 20,000 non-profits each month about their funding needs and plans, we sometimes hear that “foundation fundraising is not part of our focus”.  We believe that there are some very compelling reasons to introduce or re-visit foundations as a potential source of funding for your organization. Those reasons are:

Growth – the most recent GIVING USA report from Indiana University indicates that foundation funding was the fastest growing giving source in 2015, growing at a rate of 6.5%, compared to 3.8% for giving by individual donors. Foundations gave $58.46 billion, in the form of an estimated 832,000 grants – that is one grant for every two charities in the US so your odds of getting funded – if you apply of course – are good.

Stable Giving – Foundations must make charitable grants – in good times and bad – of at least 5% of their assets, averaged over five years. Importantly, foundations frequently INCREASE their donations in challenging times to attempt to compensate for the financial difficulties their recipients may face.

Predictable giving – Foundations exist to donate to charity (unlike individuals and corporations) and often publish giving guidelines relating to geographic and philanthropic areas of giving interest – furthermore, analysis of giving through time indicates that most foundations maintain a strong, consistent focus in the areas they support.

Low risk / low cost – unlike high, upfront expenditure fundraising efforts like golf tournaments and galas, foundation fundraising requires very little upfront investment, typically $5,000-$10,000, and with the average foundation grant amount of $66,300, it provides a cost efficient method of fundraising – all that is required to start is a funding database which identifies good funding prospects, a good letter, and stamps and envelopes.

Low effort – relative to almost any other form of fundraising, approaching foundations requires fewer resources to succeed. This is particularly true of the upfront work in sorting through the over 120,000 US foundations to identify a list of “best prospects” for your project, a task that a few years ago could consume months of effort. Foundation funding information and management systems like FoundationSearch are now able to intelligently and accurately identify a short list of the best prospects for a variety of project funding needs – and recommend a safe asking amount based on the funders prior giving history.  The balance of the upfront effort simply involves writing and sending a letter of inquiry to your foundation prospects to determine their interest in helping you.

Increased credibility for you and your organization – well, once you get funded by a foundation that is. When Metasoft was a small, three person software start-up, we had only one customer – but that customer was Microsoft, and that client said good things about our software and people and opened the doors of more than one hundred other large high tech companies who became customers of our graphics and imaging technology. Similarly, if you were to be successful in attracting a grant from the Gates Foundation, this would open up many doors in the foundation and corporate world for your organization for years to come.

Diversification of funding sources – financial advisors will strongly advise you not to put your life savings into a single stock or sector; for the same reason, having a variety of funding sources—including foundation funding—will strengthen your organization and protect it from the sharp downturns every economy periodically experiences.

Want to learn more or add your thoughts? Feel free to contribute….

With foundation funders, does “No” mean “Maybe”? – Part 1

A sizeable number of the more than 121,000 foundations in the US -19,888- indicate that they do not accept unsolicited proposals.

We also know that a significant number of current and past FoundationSearch members (more than 16,000) do not approach them for that reason. Is there a missed opportunity here?

Many grant seekers believe that these funders are “captive funders” that act to support a single non-profit such as a school or hospital; or they have a small list of charitable organizations they wish to support and are not receptive to solicitations from new charities. In fact, many of our FoundationSearch users “tag” these foundations in order to exclude them from searches and prospect lists altogether.

But is this really an effective or advisable strategy?

Internet research on the topic reveals that Bradley Smith, the President of Foundation Center, wrote about this topic in 2011 in a blog post entitled “Don’t Call us, We’ll Call You”.  In this piece, he addresses some of the reasons why foundations state that they do not accept unsolicited proposals – the two principal reasons he cites are – one, a desire by funders to limit the volume of requests they are receiving, and two, a desire to proactively choose charities to fulfill their strategic goals. Unfortunately, he did not examine how pervasive the issue is with foundations, and we found no other credible research on the matter. So as such, we decided to do our own.

To do this, we conducted a comprehensive review of FoundationSearch data spanning more than fifteen years of US granting history for over 75,000 grantmaking foundations including more than 10 million grants to gain some insight.

This is what we learned:

19,988 foundations indicate that they do not accept unsolicited proposals.

Of these, 4,608 of these foundations – 23% –  provided no grants to new recipients over the period analyzed.  But 15,380 of these foundations – 77% –  in actual fact did provide grants to multiple new recipients over the period analyzed.

So, the good news is that the majority of funders that state they are not soliciting new proposals are, in fact, funding new recipients.

There are two takeaway lessons from this.

First; don’t be too quick to write off a foundation that states that they are not soliciting proposals –FoundationSearch provides detailed charts in each foundation profile indicating new vs repeat recipients by year. A review of these FoundationSearch charts offers detailed insight into grant funding provided to new recipients. These funding trends can be viewed by Value of Grants, Number of Grants, and Number of Recipients.

Comparison of the Value of New vs Repeat Grants Given by the Marvin and Donna Schwartz Foundation
Value of New vs Repeat Grants Given by the Marvin and Donna Schwartz Foundation
Click on chart to view full size
Comparison of the Number of New vs Repeat Grants Given by the Marvin and Donna Schwartz Foundation
Number of New vs Repeat Grants Given by the Marvin and Donna Schwartz Foundation
Click on chart to view full size
Comparison of the Number of New vs Repeat Grant Recipients for the Marvin and Donna Schwartz Foundation
Number of New vs Repeat Grant Recipients for the Marvin and Donna Schwartz Foundation
Click on chart to view full size

Second; for those funders who are in fact funding new recipients year over year, you will need to find another way in the door – more on this in my next blog.

Which Foundations are your Best Foundation Funding Prospects? Part 1

Defining what makes a best foundation prospect is easy to agree on – it is that foundation that is most likely to fund your organization, in the amount you need, when you need it. So much for the easy part; the tricky part is analyzing the over 120,000 US foundations and their stated and actual funding criteria to determine which of them are most likely to fund you.

In this week’s blog post, we’ll review the key factors that must be considered when evaluating a prospective funder, in order to maximize your chances of getting funded.

In analyzing foundation prospects, our experience shows that a review of foundation funding history is everything. Although many foundations publish detailed funding guidelines, actual funding history gives the truest picture of a foundation’s giving interests and patterns. Based on our analysis of fifteen years of granting and an analysis of almost ten million grants made by US foundations, we have determined that most foundations can be quite predictable in their granting behavior.

Multiple factors need to be considered when reviewing prospective foundation funders, and foundation research products like FoundationSearch and Foundation Center’s Foundation Directory Online provide many of the tools required to identify funders that meet a diverse range of funding criteria with comparative ease.

The funding factors that are the most determinate are:

Location of Recipient or Project. Geography – yours and theirs – is important. Our research has shown that funders can be quite geographically specific in their mandate (think “community foundations”), and will often reject otherwise very good proposals based on geography alone.

Giving Category. Arts, health, education, the environment, social services, sports and recreation, international causes – almost all funders are specific in terms of which non-profit categories they wish to fund. A few questions to ask yourself when evaluating a funder’s granting history: How diverse is the foundation’s funding pattern? Do they give to a wide range of giving categories, or are they very specific in what they choose to fund? If they do give to a wide range of interests, then perhaps they may be open to funding something new?

Grant Size. Grant size can be overlooked, but it’s important to note that if you are asking for too much—or even too little—the funder may be less likely to fund your project over a competing project that has an ask amount more in line with the funder’s giving preferences. Not only should you look at the dollar amount given per grant in your category, but also the total number of grants given at that dollar amount. There is no sense in asking for a $500,000 grant from a funder if they have not previously given a grant of this size. Similarly, foundations frequently set “floors” on the smallest grant size given as they find that it is difficult to cost-effectively oversee the progress made by recipients.

New versus Old Recipients Giving. Determining the degree to which a foundation is receptive to funding new opportunities is another key factor to evaluate. Funders may differentiate between recipients that have and have not been funded previously by the foundation. Some funders are very open to new opportunities, and a close examination of their past granting history may often reveal these preferences. To complicate matters, foundations may decide to change funding emphasis – or de-emphasis – by non-profit category or geography, so any analysis needs to be sensitive to these dimensions.

Giving Trends. Reviewing a funder’s funding history should also include reviewing the overall, general trends in giving. For instance, is their funding to the arts increasing over time, or decreasing within your category? It may be trickier getting grants from a funder that has given dozens of arts grants five years ago, but only one arts grant in the past year. The odds of getting grants from a funder that is increasing granting to a category is better than from a funder that is decreasing granting to that category.

Giving Interests. “Giving interests” are frequently a more specific level of funding interest within a category. For instance, “performing arts” is a specific funding interest within the Arts category, and “ballet” would be an even more specific interest within performing arts. Although it is tempting to qualify foundations to the most specific interest level, this poses two concerns – first, that you would be eliminating potential funders with a broad range of interest in the category but have not yet funded (in our example) “ballet.” Secondly, if the foundation has funded “ballet,” they may not be looking to make additional donations in this area. The general success principle would be to “cast a wider net” than you think you need.

Types of Support. Knowing what types support the foundation is willing to fund is also important. While some funders will not specify where or how the grant dollars should be spent, other funders will explicitly provide only program support, or may choose not to fund capital campaigns.

Note also that when reviewing each of these factors, the frequency of granting is critical. You may find a funder that matches on all vital counts—but if that funder has only ever given one grant that matched, how likely would that funder be to fund you next, compared to a funder that has given dozens of similar grants?

So all well and good. These are the things you need to look for in a potential funder’s giving history, in order to determine whether they’ll be a good match or not. But, how do you create a framework for generating a ranked list of prospects for your project, in a timely, efficient way? How can you find all the best potential funders, not just a single perfect funder?

We’ll discuss some of the options available in the marketplace in the next blog post.

(Please feel free to leave a comment, or link/re-post as you like. I look forward to your comments and feedback!)