Maintaining a funder/nonprofit relationship can take some work but with clear communication and expectations, this can be a relationship that goes beyond just giving and receiving a check.
Written by Christina Fagan and Hannah Loewenthal
Throughout our lives we will engage in many meaningful relationships. Whether it be a friendship or a relationship with a loved one, there is some work that going into maintaining it. Within the non-profit world the relationship that is had with donors is extremely important. From a Foundation standpoint, we appreciate the relationship we have with our non-profit partners. As our team likes to say, ‘We want a relationship that is more than just a transaction.’
The making of a great funder/nonprofit relationship may take some time but by keeping certain aspects in mind, these relationships can be long lasting and mutually beneficial. This includes a shifted mindset beyond the idea of fundraising as begging for money into the idea of playing matchmaker; or aligning the passions and missions together as a funder and nonprofit to create a perfect match. These relationships should not feel forced, and truly only work when the ultimate end goals are aligned, and the mission of the non-profit is always kept at the forefront of the relationship.
In every successful relationship, there are certain factors that come into play. A few important ones that I will dive deep into are mutual respect, clear expectations, open and ongoing communication, trust, humility, and mission alignment. When these are all placed and fit together this relationship can work like a well-oiled machine. Now let’s break some of these down!
1) Regular and Open Communication:
Regular communication is crucial! Final report time should not be the only time funders hear from non-profits. Funders want to hear any updates and achievements no matter how big or small. Go the extra mile to show your funders that you truly appreciate them and exceed their expectations. You can do this simply by making them a part of your story. Involve your donor as much as possible, whether it be within volunteer opportunities, fundraising events, or even external initiatives you are a part of to benefit the community at-large. Invite them to even weigh in on certain ideas or share possible initiatives that are in the works for the future to see if there would be any interest for them to support those. Throughout this whole process, most importantly stay honest. As we have seen, especially this past year, anything can change overnight. With the COVID-19 Pandemic, this caused many issues to arise and the restructuring of programming for many, if not all, nonprofits the UHM Foundation supports. Stay honest and be upfront if something is going wrong at your organization. Are there any worries you have? How is the timeline of the funded project? Has programming and providing resources been a struggle through COVID? A true funder/ nonprofit relationship should be able to have this honest and open conversation. If you are honest with your funder they will appreciate and respect that. If they are aware of these challenges, they may even be able to offer additional help and resources or connect you with others that could.
You could also invite funders to see the organization site to paint a clear picture where their dollars would be going to or look for ways to connect and share information outside of the grant making process. For example, our nonprofit partners at the Literacy Cooperative, participated in our Foundation’s annual 5K, while the UHM Foundation partakes in their annual spelling bee. This was a way to communication outside of the grant process and also show support towards one another.
2) Mutual Respect
A clear set boundary of mutual respect should be set from the start of the relationship. Be respectful of time and the ultimate goals of both organizations. From a corporate funder’s point of view, we understand that non-profits work for their clients, while we “work for” our employees and governing boards. Providing as much information as you can, will help funders to set the clear expectations on the factors that will go into the grant relationship and what can realistically be accomplished – whether that is the reality of your organization’s budget, staff size, or even capacity and bandwidth to take on more. What brings this relationship together is money and the meaningful connection to missions.
3) Trust and Transparency
From both sides of a funder and nonprofit, trusting one another is a hallmark of a strong relationship. Funders want to do all they can to help and advance the efforts that nonprofits do. Be transparent when initiatives don’t go how they are planned. Ask for any assistance and guidance from the funder and be clear where you stand. For funders, we need to understand that many nonprofits are already overworked, understaffed and they are the “experts” in knowing the needs of their clients – we should try our hardest to empower them, not add additional barriers or make the stipulations around our grants that make them taxing for the nonprofit.
An example where there was clear transparency in a funder/ non-profit relationship happened this past year with COVID. As soon as the work from home orders were instituted, the Foundation met individually with our nonprofit partners to see how this change would affect their organization. We heard from many that were pivoting programs or had to temporarily close their doors – largely affecting fundraising and revenue streams. These conversations led us to make a decision to remove “ALL restrictions” on 2020 funding – so that nonprofits could utilize their funds where needed most, even if it was just to keep the lights on.
4) Dream Together
Sometimes the greatest ideas can come out of collaboration. We’ve heard a tip from other funders before that one of their favorite questions to ask a nonprofit is “if you had a magic wand, what is the one thing you would change or make possible for your organization?” Asking this simple question allows the nonprofit to think larger, but also for you to get creative together to find that opportunity that is the perfect symbiotic example of grant dollars with volunteer engagement with mission fulfillment.
For example, the UHM Foundation has supported the Cleveland Kids Book Bank for a few years in a row with a grant to support giving Cleveland Metropolitan kids a book to take home and own over winter break. Usually this is done through boxed book deliveries. Last year, we wanted to find a way for our partners to see the impact of this donation. So, we created an event with two elementary schools within the Bedford School District (our CEO’s hometown). At this event, we had classrooms come through a “scholastic book fair” type set up and choose the book they wanted to take home and fill out a “this book belongs to” sticker in each. Our UHM partners dressed as elves and the Book Bank was on hand to see their mission at work. Being a part of this event let us see firsthand the effects we have as a foundation. This gave us the ability to know where our dollars went and to be a part of the impact. This special event brought both the UHM Foundation and Cleveland Kids Book Bank together and helped deepen the funder/ non-profit relationship.
5) Manage Expectations
Doing this will set guidelines for existing nonprofit partners and also set the standards for new organizations. Having clear expectations on the type of project and where the funding is going towards will help to make sure that each of the nonprofits and foundation’s visions align. Before a proposal is submitted and the hard work that goes into writing one, check with your funder and ask any questions to be guided in the correct direction. Once funding is awarded, how will expectations be managed from there? As a non-profit can you meet the goals of the grant and what the funder is asking? This is where partnering with your funder can play a big role.
For example, our corporate headquarters typically partners with Volunteers of America annually for a backpack donation drive. With the struggles around COVID this year, this initiative needed to look different and began with conversations as early as two months ahead of our usually planned event. We were able to get creative with them, create a virtual store to purchase supplies, and ultimately host a drive-up distribution event. This event was located at Union Home Mortgage’s Strongsville Campus and allowed families in need the chance to drive up and receive a backpack for their child, along with additional resources. With the same nonprofit, we also had funded a veteran housing project, that had been placed on hold due to COVID. The nonprofit was great with contacting us early to notify us of these changes and how it would affect the ultimate timeline of the project.
All of the steps outlined above can make a great partnership and relationship. Without these, funders may be left feeling unconnected towards your mission and your organization, or surprised when grants don’t turn out the way they should. So next time you approach a new relationship with a funder, think of ways you can continue to engage with them, lean on them for support and share in honest conversations – you’ll reap the rewards and have a relationship that is more meaningful and impactful in the long run.
Sources: Chandler, Jennifer. “The Secret Sauce of Great Funder/Nonprofit Relationships.” National Council of Nonprofits, 17 May 2019, www.councilofnonprofits.org/thought-leadership/the-secret-sauce-of-great-fundernonprofit-relationships.