NCFY Reports

The Secret Life of Foundation Officers, As Told by Lee Draper

Recently, NCFY sat down with Lee Draper, a management consultant who works with grantmakers and nonprofit agencies. Draper has 25 years’ experience working with and for philanthropic organizations. In the following interview, she provides FYSB grantees with tips on how to best approach private funders.

Clip art of a plant with money for leaves.NCFY: We’d like to make our grantees more familiar with private foundations. Can you start by talking about who is a foundation officer? What kind of background do they have? Are they real people? What do they do every day?

LD: The program officers, program directors, executive directors, and trustees of foundations are real people. And most of them have gone into this kind of work because they care about the mission of their foundation, and those missions are much akin to the kind of mission statements that nonprofit organizations have, really focused on trying to help people.

The second thing is, they are like nonprofit leaders; they are many times overworked. Because the competition is increasingly rough, and many more nonprofits are applying, program officers and executive directors of foundations are sitting at desks with huge piles of proposals in front of them. They don’t have much time to read them. They don’t have much time to talk with people who are submitting them. And they don’t have much time at all to get out there and actually see the nonprofits work. And that is as sad to them ultimately as it is to the nonprofit. So, one of the really important rules for the grant seeker is to know that the person behind the desk is a human being who—if you’ve done your homework right and you’ve identified a foundation that has a program interest like your nonprofit—cares about the same thing.

The thing about them being overworked is you have to prepare yourself as a grantee to be concise and to be clear with what you want. A lot of times, a new grant seeker will think that they need to tell the possible funder everything about their organization in order to prove that it is a good and worthy organization. Instead, you really have to think, how can I, in five or six sentences, say a good overview of what we do, who we serve, how long we’ve been doing it, and what our impact is?

NCFY: Stepping back a little bit, before people even start crafting those five to six sentences, what do they need to think about as they are designing a program to make it interesting to a foundation? 

LD: The first thing is to really know what you need and identify that before you even go out to find potential funders. The wonderful thing about the funding community is that there are all kinds of funders. If you need transitional housing, or if you need programs that serve homeless youth with mental-health counseling and life-skills building, say that and don’t waver. 

Don’t run after any funder that comes across your radar screen and try to bend yourself into a pretzel. So that’s the first thing: What do you need? The second thing is how much does it cost bare bones? Not pie in the sky, but how much do you really need, bare bones, to make something meaningful happen? And it’s better to find three to five funders who could bite off a part of that rather than going to one funder and asking them for the whole thing.

NCFY: Do you tell the funders that you’re dividing it up in that way?

LD: Absolutely. Because if I’m Funder A, and I know that you’re asking me for a third or half the money, and I know that you’re going to three or four more funders to make up the rest of that money, I know right then that you’re not going to be dependent on me. I also know that you’ve done your homework, because I know some of those funders, and I know that they’re good, strong, potential ones. And thirdly, if I like what you’re doing, I might even give a call—and you’ll never even know about it—to one of those other funders and say, “Listen, I’m thinking about doing half. Will you do the other?” So they’ll actually think you’re really entrepreneurial and smart.

NCFY: What are other ways that you can distinguish yourself in that huge pile of proposals beyond having your five- or six-sentence concise synopsis? For example, does good writing matter?

Image of two people comparing notes.LD: Well, here are a few things about the writing. First, put the request in the first paragraph. A common mistake is for a grant seeker to put it at the very end or to not say it at all and just say, “Could you fund this?”

Number two, think of how much you want to ask them for. You don’t want to ask for something outlandish. So, do your homework. Find out what size of grants they make to organizations that are like yours.

The third thing about putting the money right up front is it makes you proud. Because when you say that right off the bat, the rest of the proposal is going to be reinforcing your request. And you’re going to do that with a lot more confidence than if you put it at the end and are trying to lead up to it.

The next thing about writing is proof it. Have somebody else read it over before you send it out, maybe even a friend or a family member in addition to a staff member at the organization. Because they will be able to read it with an eye to whether it makes sense to a layperson. Many of the people who read these proposals are generalists, not experts.

Proofing it is really important. Because many grant makers will tell you that they will automatically decline a proposal that has misspellings or grammatical or punctuation errors. Because that says you don’t know what you’re doing.

NCFY: You mentioned a couple of common mistakes. What other things are cringeworthy, things you recommend people never say?

LD: There are certain words that grant makers cringe at. And many of them are about over-promising. “We are unique. We are the best. We are the only.” Watch out for that. That shows you don’t know your own field. Because they are likely to read proposals from other organizations that may be quite similar and just as good. It’s just as good to say “high quality” as it is to say “the best.” Or to say a “special approach” rather than saying a “unique approach.”

Another thing about the written request is, follow their guidelines. Do not, do not, do not send out 80 proposals to a list of 80 funders you’ve gotten somewhere. Because then you will get 80 declines. And you will create a bad relationship with 80 funders who think you are rude to not have done any homework. So put a little extra time into looking at Web sites, into going to your local library for research tools and funder directories that can help you know the funder.

Many foundations have Web sites now and their application guidelines are online. Follow those to a T.  And their tax returns are on A foundation is required to give a list of the organizations they have funded on their tax returns. Most often, they give not only the organization name, but the amount of the grant, and what it was for. So do that homework.

NCFY: Is there room for an applicant to call a foundation official and ask questions or follow up if they haven’t been funded to find out what went wrong?

LD: Absolutely. In fact, remember, these are people. And these people get just as tired as any of us of dealing with paper all day. It is always good before you submit a request, but after you’ve done your homework, to call a funder and ask if the kind of request you are making is appropriate.

NCFY: How data-heavy do proposals need to be? Do you have to have a lot of supporting data and facts about your community or the population you’re serving?

LD: That depends on the funder, period. The application guidelines will generally say what kind of data they want. Some of them might say, “Please describe the population you serve” or, “Please provide evaluation results.”

NCFY: Where is the best place for a grantee to start a funding search?

LD: When they’re thinking about potential funders, they should think of themselves in the middle of an onion. And around them are the rings of the onion. The first funders that they should target should be local, then regional, then State, then national. Do not go to the big foundations that are national first, even though they have a lot of money. Start local. And that means a local community foundation, local family foundation, local corporations or businesses that are active. Go local because local people can make site visits. Local people know the problems and issues of the community they’re living in, too. And they’re usually much more accessible and don’t have so many piles.

NCFY: Is it worth trying national foundations?

LD: For a small community-based organization, unless you have garnered local support from foundations that are close by you, your chances will be very reduced. Because they want to see that foundations in your neighborhood who are close to you and who can actually go out there and visit you have invested in you. It’s a rare example that a national funder would support an organization that didn’t have local funder support. 

NCFY: What about a grantee who is just starting out? Is there room for someone who doesn’t have the “how long have we been doing it?” part of the five-sentence summary? 

LD: There is. Here’s where you need to read the guidelines. Many foundations will not support organizations until they’ve been up and running for 2 or 3 years. But some funders are open to newer organizations.

NCFY: Often, when you look at a foundation’s priority list, it is really vague, like “we fund youth development projects.” Does that mean, if you craft something that fits into that really broad category, it will be of interest to them?

LD: That’s why you want to use multiple sources of research. Because if you go to the Web site alone or get their brochure or something like that, they might say, “We fund youth services.” And you think, “Oh, goodie! They’ll fund our community-based homeless youth program.” But then you go to Guidestar and you print off the list of who they funded. And their grants list is all grants to the YMCA, Girls and Boys Club, the United Way, and the Metropolitan Museum. If they aren’t funding any small or mid-size organizations, don’t waste your time. Who are you to convince them? Because the next one you look at, chances are they’ll be funding homeless shelters and community-based efforts, and you’ll go, “Okay, here we go. We've found a friend.”

NCFY: Where do you see the future of funding? Do you sense that human services funding is increasing, decreasing?

LD: In the future, of course there is going to be dynamic change. But who can predict this? The main thing is, Americans are extremely generous people. And foundations are there to fulfill their mission, which is to serve the nonprofit community and the people that the nonprofit community serves. So that’s not going away. The thing is that more and more people are competing for that money, so you have to be smarter at it.

NCFY: Do you think it makes sense for people to have a dedicated grant writer? Is it possible to do your grant writing in house and do a good job of it?

Thank you written in many languages.LD: I think you can do it in house. You can have a part-time or a full‑time staff person doing it. You can also hire consultants or contract workers to do it. It really depends on what your resources are. You may have staff stretched thin. Then it’s good to hire a consultant. If you are just getting started and you have a big learning curve, a consultant can help you avoid the trial and error. Many consultants will do it with you and teach you how to do it, which can be a good way of starting so that you don’t spend a lot of time and get frustrated and not get any return.

There are also lots of workshops and classes. Look for ones that are longer than a day. It’s better to go to the workshops and classes that last multiple days, even though they might be more expensive, because they go deeper.

One other thing is, when you’re successful, write a thank-you note within 2 or 3 days. The number of nonprofits that do not thank their funders is very high. And what does that say to the donor? That says you are ungrateful. When you send a thank-you note, it makes the funder feel appreciated. They feel you care. And they will be receptive the next time you come with a new proposal. I cannot tell you how frequently I hear my colleagues who are grant makers say, “A third to half of our grantees never send a thank-you note. And they think that we’re going to fund them next year. Ha, ha, ha.” So that gets back to the fact that those are people behind the desk. And when they have helped you, it’s important to remember to thank them.

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