How to build great relationships with funders 

Organisations that invest time and effort in building and maintaining strong relationships with donors – including foundations and other grantmakers – are the most successful fundraisers. Strong relationships require careful research, great communication, thoughtful strategy and a collaborative approach.

We know that organisations that invest time and effort in building and maintaining relationships with donors are the most successful fundraisers. But what does this mean in practice?

The following tips were distilled from a webinar presented in 2020 by Wendy Brooks & Partners in concert with two of Australia’s most experienced philanthropy specialists: Vedran Drakulic OAM, the CEO of Gandel Philanthropy, and Will Beresford, a relationships manager with Equity Trustees.

Do your research

  • If you've met one foundation or one funder, you've met only one foundation or funder. Each fund, and each funder, is unique, so you need to do your research before applying for a grant and in building your relationship with the key decision-makers.
  • Carry out your research before approaching a funder or applying for a grant. Knowledge is power, so make sure that you understand the objectives of the trust and who the decision-makers are so that you can pitch the right program to the right fund.

Communication is key

  • Tailored, nuanced communication is crucial to good long-term relationships. The way you communicate will depend on the organisation, the program and the fund, but you must find the best way to communicate with the funder before, during and after the funding relationship. If you want to ensure ongoing funding, you must be prepared to commit to a long-term communication strategy.
  • There's no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to communicating with funders. It's a good idea to ask a funder how they would like you to communicate with them – in what format, with what level of detail, at what stages of a project, and with whom, exactly.
  • Make funders aware of your important work by bringing your programs to their attention – not just once but regularly, as your work progresses. You might do this through tailored emails, other direct communication channels, fund portals or grant applications. Succinctly describe the need that exists and how your program is meeting that need.
  • Never underestimate the power of success stories. Funders need to understand the problem being experienced by your community (or its individuals), and how your organisation or program is addressing the problem and creating lasting change. If you can describe this change in an easily digestible story or case study, the funder can take the news to the key decision-makers and improve your chances of receiving funding.

Be strategic, and have your house in order

  • Decision-makers will look at the following three elements when assessing an application for funding: (1) there is a clear, genuine and unmet need that the proposal addresses; ( 2) the program being pitched is going to achieve short- and long-term impact that could not be achieved without the funding; (3) there is evidence of collaboration or the organisation is working in complementary ways with other organisations addressing similar needs or cohorts within the community. 
  • Major red flags that funders look out for when reviewing applications: (1) financial instability or general insecurity; (2) duplication without collaboration or awareness of the ecosystem in which an organisation operates; (3) limited community consultation in addressing the need.
  • When a funder assesses an organisation for suitability for funding it will first look at the board, and do the due diligence required to assess good governance, financial strength and leadership.

Adopt a genuine, honest and collaborative approach

  • Be genuine and honest about what funding is required and why. Decision-makers can tell if a grant writer is trying to fit a round peg into a square hole, and this can have a damaging impact on funder relationships. 
  • Funders want to know what's happening with the projects and programs they are supporting – no surprises. Communicate both challenges and successes to keep funders updated and allow for feedback and input if things aren’t going to plan.
  • If you've got the ear of a funder, test out a couple of key programs and see what feedback you get about what you're trying to achieve. Ask them whether they've got any suggestions about how you might better position your application or approach. Listening, as distinct from just providing information, is key. Funders want to know there's a symbiotic relationship, not just a 'take' mentality.
  • Board members must be knowledgeable about the organisation's key funders and the fundraising strategy. There is nothing worse than when a funder meets a board member for the first time and the funder says "We (financially) support your organisation," and the board member says, "Oh, really? Thank you." Board members should be aware of funders and the administrators of those funds so that, to the best of their ability, they can proactively thank them and build relationships with funders.
  • Funders want to see a strong, thriving not-for-profit sector. If you need their assistance, reach out to them. If you've taken on board all the information outlined above, they're likely to respond: "We are in your corner and we want to support you in any way we can."

This help sheet was prepared by Catherine Brooks, a senior advisor with Wendy Brooks & Partners. To view a recording of the webinar on which the help sheet is based, click here.

Wendy Brooks & Partners provides strategic fundraising services, cultivating relationships and connecting investors and funders with programs and activities to maximise impact.

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