How to identify and approach private funders

When developing large scale community projects, often it is necessary to secure significant funds from corporate, community or private family foundations. Knowing how to identify and prepare for the first meeting with potential funders is critical.

In today’s world of tighter budgets and more limited resources, funding for large scale community development projects can be very competitive. Often, community leaders find themselves in need of significant additional revenue sources if they wish to see their projects become a reality. Too many times, I see communities spend valuable time chasing every potential source of funding down the proverbial rabbit hole. In reality, a more efficient use of time is to identify and research a smaller subset of potential funders whose interests and priorities are in line with your project. This process requires, on the onset, reviewing the focus areas and objectives, strategic plan and previous funding efforts/amounts of potential funders. Additionally, if you are approaching a corporate or private family foundation, they may have interest in leaving a legacy through naming rights on a large project (such as a park or trail), something that your community will have to take into consideration.

When you have identified potential funding sources, it is important to make initial contact with the appropriate person, usually a program officer at a foundation, to discuss your project. There is a common misconception in many communities that it is somehow unethical to make contact with a foundation to discuss a project prior to grant application. While it is inappropriate to discuss your project with a foundation board member, it is welcome (and you are often encouraged) to discuss your program with a program officer. He or she can be of valuable assistance, walking you through the process, making sure your proposal conforms to their organization’s guidelines. These early discussions and relationship building can have a positive effect on funding outcomes. 

Whether approaching a corporate, community or private family foundation, it is important to remember that their reputation is reflected in the quality and success of the projects they fund. Also, corporate and private family foundations tend to fund projects that reflect their company (such as a hiking shoe company sponsoring a trail) or personal/family interests.

When preparing for your first meeting with potential funders, it is important to keep in mind a few key pointers. If you are sending more than one person to represent your group, community or organization, keep it small around two to three people. Meet ahead of time so that everyone knows their respective roles and the message you want to convey is clear and concise. Prepare a one page executive summary that provides an overview of your project. However, don’t rely on that one pager – know the information and the details of your project intimately so that you don’t have to reference or read off of it at the meeting. Remember, a good project will sell itself – you shouldn’t have to sell it at this meeting. Particularly with corporate and private family foundations, the very fact that they are willing to meet with you suggests that they have interest in the project. This meeting is about evaluating you as a project leader to determine if they have confidence enough in your efforts and abilities to invest their money and reputation into your project. Be sure to stay on message, focusing on the “big picture” and its positive, lasting impact on the community.

Prompt follow-up after the first meeting is important. You should be able to determine if there is enough interest to continue future discussions. Lastly, remember that you are on their time table, not the other way around. Allow yourself enough time for this process to develop and succeed without potential funders feeling rushed – you want to be perceived in a competent manner, offering them an opportunity to be a valuable partner with a genuine interest in your project’s success. A true relationship of this caliber should be mutually beneficial to both parties. 

For additional resources, Michigan State University Extension has educators that may be able to provide assistance on this subject. 

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