Do You Speak the Private Donor’s Language?

Every time I travel abroad to a place where the language and culture are different, there are always situations where it is difficult to be understood. These experiences often remind me of the flawed way I approached my first grant. I thought the fact that I had an innovative idea would alone merit funding. I even believed that I could send the same proposal to various donors and just sit back and see who would fund me. I was, of course, unsuccessful because writing to donors, whose missions I did not fully understand, is comparable to visiting another country and assuming you can make it by without learning anything about your new surroundings. I quickly realized that the problem with this approach is that donors cannot be lured away from their missions, priorities, beliefs, values, and cultures. The take-away for me was that when one builds a case targeted to a generic audience, one ends up speaking a language not understood by any individual donor. The moment a donor is forced to translate a funding request into something they care about or understand, is the moment you are in trouble as a grant seeker. Instead, successful grant writing requires learning what funders want to accomplish, and properly articulating how their objectives will align with your work.

Steps You Must Take to Promote Your Idea to a Foundation

  • The first step to determining how best to approach a foundation is to do your research. You can begin with their website, which in many cases includes what they do, what they fund, who they fund and what they believe are important problems that need to be solved.
  • To avoid speaking a different language than the donor, research the foundation’s history. How they evolved and who they are today will shed light on their core values and the issues that are important to them. Once you have identified these elements, make a chart that includes: the foundation’s name, funding priorities, geographical funding region, and how your request parallels their vision.
  • Review the foundation’s tax returns (990PF) to identify who they funded, how much money they gave and the purpose of their funding. This will give you a more comprehensive view of how your request compares to what they support.
  • Understanding the makeup of the foundation’s board and leadership will give you excellent insight into the approach you will need to take in making your request. If, for example, you are submitting a proposal to a foundation that funds issues related to health disparities and the board is made up of physicians, business persons, and patients, your language should be such that your proposal speaks to all of them at the same time.
  • Once you have done your research, you will need to customize your “elevator pitch” using language that the donor understands, and frame your work as an opportunity for the donor to fulfill their mission. Here you will need to align your mission, values, and vision in a manner that makes you a credible partner.

Let us look at some examples of what foundations want and what they expect from grant seekers. Starting with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the first thing that we see on their website is what they believe to be their greatest priorities in the U.S. and abroad. Specifically, they describe those as follows:

The path out of poverty begins when the next generation can access quality healthcare and a great education.In developing countries, we focus on improving people’s health and wellbeing, helping individuals lift themselves out of hunger and extreme poverty. In the United States, we seek to ensure that all people—especially those with the fewest resources—can access the opportunities they need to succeed in school and life.

They emphasize their values, mission, vision and priorities throughout the website. This information, along with further research, will give you an understanding of whether you are a good fit, and if so, how you should align your proposal to speak the same language.

Turning to the W.K. Kellogg Foundation website, we immediately see the words “We believe” with a description of what they fund:

We believe in supporting and building upon the mindsets, methods and modes of change that hold promise to advance children’s best interests generally, and those of vulnerable children in particular.

They further explain where they focus their resources:

Concentrating our resources on early childhood (prenatal to age 8), within the context of families and communities, offers the best opportunity to dramatically reduce the vulnerability caused by poverty and racial inequity over time.

At the end of the day, your grant proposal should complement a foundation’s mission and vision. You will best succeed if you speak the same language, fit into the same culture, and present a plan that promises mutual future success.

Mathilda Harris

Over the past 18 years, she has written grants, conducted capital campaigns, developed strategic plans for grant procurement, and assisted individuals and institutions to write winning proposals for various donors.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.