Right on the Money: Get to Know Your Friendly Neighborhood Community Foundation

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Diverse members of a community foundation

For community-based organizations, community foundations can be a lifeline. Unlike big national grant makers, these public charities define their missions according to geography -- benefiting nonprofit groups in a particular city, county, state or region. So though no potential source of funding is a sure thing, community foundations are a good bet for nonprofits with a strong history of serving their communities.

Securing much-needed funding is not the only reason to court your local community foundation. Many of these foundations offer training and other non-cash support, such as mentoring and workshops on management and fund raising. And community foundations sometimes serve as “matchmakers” between charities in search of funding and individual donors with a passion for a particular cause, says Heather Larkin, president of the Arkansas Community Foundation in Little Rock.

We asked Larkin and Michael Stoffregen, executive director of the Community Foundation of Johnson County, in Iowa City, IA, to share tips for nonprofit leaders wishing to build a relationship with a community foundation:

Do your research. Start by reading the foundation’s website, Stoffregen says. “Understand what they’re about because grant makers have all sorts of different missions,” he says. Look at the grants the foundation has made in the past and determine if your work fits its focus.

Introduce yourself. Call the program officer in charge of youth and family issues and ask for a face-to-face meeting. Larkin says staff at her foundation often meet with nonprofit groups in 45-minute “getting to know you” sessions. “Community foundations make it their business to know what’s going on at nonprofits and in the community,” she explains. She recommends bringing a packet of information about your organization. Follow up by inviting the program officer to visit your charity and see it in action.

Stay in touch. “Don’t drive them crazy,” Larkin says, but strive to keep foundation officials up to date on your work. Invite them to events hosted by your organization. Send them your annual report when it comes out. Though staff don’t make funding decisions (that’s a role of the foundation’s board), “We see it as our job to help the nonprofit make a strong application,” Larkin says. “The better we know their work, the better advocates we can be.”

Apply for a grant. Read application guidelines carefully to ensure that the grant you are applying for matches your needs and the work you do. Stoffregen recommends writing short, to-the-point, clear requests “without a lot of puffery.”

If you get a grant, meet your deadlines. The community foundation will ask you to report on your grant periodically. If you miss a deadline, you’re nixing your chances of being awarded another grant in the future, Larkin and Stoffregen say.

If you don’t get a grant, it doesn’t hurt to ask why. Whether you get an answer depends on the foundation. The Johnson County foundation’s grant-review committee prepares critiques, which Stoffregen passes on to unsuccessful applicants. But Larkin says that unless a nonprofit lost out because of a technicality (missing a deadline, for example, or failing to have its board chair sign the application), her foundation probably won’t divulge its reasons for not awarding a grant. “There’s always unlimited needs and very limited resources,” she says.

A good question to ask is whether foundation staff recommend that you apply for another grant later. “That lets them off the hook to say yes or no, this is something they may fund in the future,” Larkin says.

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