Nonprofit treasure map: A funder communications plan



This year is different. At many nonprofits, routine communications activities are being swept aside to focus on one thing—survival.

Nonprofits can’t assume anything. Even foundations that were generous in past years are facing unprecedented stress right now; many have lost 1/3 of their assets. But nonprofits can craft mini-communications plans to give them their best shot at getting positive responses to letters of inquiry or proposals.

I’m assuming here that you’ve written a terrific grant proposal. No amount of relationship building through communications is going to make up for a poor proposal. But it can make a good proposal even more competitive.

In deciding your grant-seeking targets—this year especially—do a painfully honest, objective assessment of how closely your proposal idea matches the funder’s  grantmaking interests and guidelines. Has the funder changed direction in a way that might affect your proposal? How might you address this? It may be this exercise reveals too wide a gap between your interests and your past funders’ interests to expect  future grants. Don’t waste time on those proposals.

Focus your communications planning on the handful of funders you’re applying to this year who are most important to your future. Keep the universe manageable. For each of them, develop a tailored communications plan covering the period from now until your letter or proposal is submitted.

Start by brainstorming answers to these questions for each funder.

  • On a scale of 1-10 (10 is best) what’s your relationship with the funder? If it’s below 8, why? What’s the history? What’s the last progress report you sent them? Did you hear anything from them about it? Did you follow up with a phone call to make sure it gave them the information they wanted?
  • Who is the primary contact at your organization for this funder? Who is your primary contact at the funder?
  • Who are your biggest champions at the funder? If asked about your strengths, what would they say? About your weaknesses? Why do they want to fund you—what needs of theirs do you answer, and how? What might they not understand about your organization? What makes you unique from other organizations that might be competing for these funds?
  • How close are your contacts at the funder to the actual decision makers? Are they trusted and credible? Are they the people who actually will argue for your grant?
  • Have you asked them what the challenges will be for your grant? What funding levels they recommend? What they need to make as compelling a case as possible? When was the last time you interacted personally with them when a grant wasn’t involved? Do you need to reconnect? What non-grant related communications do they get from you, and how often? What communications tactics strategies and channels might work best with this person?
  • Do you have any detractors at the funder? What’s the history and what power do they have? What would their criticisms be? How can you neutralize those criticisms before they’re ever voiced?
  • Who are the current decision makers and what’s your relationship with them? Does it need cultivation? What kind? How interested are they in your issue? How familiar are they with your organization? What might they not understand about your organization? What are the toughest questions they might ask your champions? If they decide not to fund, what do you think their rationale would be? How do you communicate with decision makers now? What other strategies and channels might be effective?
  • Who, from outside the funder organization, might influence these decision makers in your favor? How might you ethically seek the help of those influencers? What information would they need from you to be effective? What role, if any, might strong testimonials play in helping you get this grant?

Based on this brainstorming, you should have a pretty good idea of what each funder needs to hear, who needs to deliver the messages to whom, and what timing and channels would be most effective (personal meetings, phone calls, personal notes, enewsletters, emails, reports, etc.). For each funder, draw up a cultivation communication plan and follow it. It’s the treasure map that can lead you to a “yes.”

CC photo credit: kierkier


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