Fundraising Insights from the Funders Themselves

August 10, 2016 | Accelerator

Fundraising Insights from the Funders Themselves

Startup founders spend countless hours crafting and refining their investor pitch, but it’s not often they get the chance to have open conversations with funders about what they look for, what they appreciate, and what their pet peeves are when evaluating organizations for potential grants. Last week funders Mira Wijayanti from Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, Jayson Morris of the Peery Foundation and Jessamine Chin from VMWare joined us at Greylock Partners in Silicon Valley to discuss their organizations’ different approaches to giving and changing perspectives around social impact.

Here are some of the lessons we learned:

Do your homework—read up

  • Have a strong understanding of a foundation’s values, granting priorities, and past grantees before meeting with a program officer.
  • Know that funders have also read up on your organization. Many are generalists, so they are likely to leverage their networks to learn about the issue landscape and what others are doing in the same space. However, think about what is difficult to understand about your organization as an outsider looking in—be ready to discuss and inform those points.
  • Do your research on the funder team and ask to speak with whoever is most aligned with your focus area and core values. If a conversation does not go as you hoped with one funder, don’t go through the backdoor to try to speak with their colleague. You don’t want to be the one creating tension in a funder team by going behind backs.

Funders talk—don’t force it

  • Relationships between funders can be sacred, for good and for bad.
  • If there isn’t a fit between your organization and a funder, trust that they have your best interest in mind. They can introduce you to other funders and vouch for you as an individual leader. Know why you are in that meeting, pitch well, and they might even pitch for you further down the line.
  • On the other hand, behaving ungraciously means that a funder is unlikely to recommend you to other funders, they might even warn against it.  

Approach asks as a conversation—follow the “Golden Rule”

  • Funders want personal, not transactional interactions and partnerships. They can quickly tell when people treat them as banks and not as people. Treat them well.
  • While initially the power dynamic can be awkward, aim to create an honest relationship with a funder. Keep in mind why funders joined this industry: they want to do the most good too.
  • Don’t send an email that you wouldn’t want to receive. Funders receive many inquiries every day: make it’s simple for them to get a grasp of who you are, what you’re doing, and where your interests overlap. Use bullet points to be succinct, and do not attach more than two documents.

Find the right fit—it’s like dating

  • You can’t hit the ball if you don’t swing! You might receive a lot of no’s—and they suck—but don’t take things personally. You have to detach yourself and enjoy the hunt.
  • Don’t ever walk in the door thinking a funder has more power than you. Remember that the project and passion are yours, so at the end of the day, you’re looking for a partner, not just a check. If you don’t want that funder as a partner, trust that there are more funders out there.
  • Even if you don’t come away with funding, leave each conversation with something of value. Find value in their feedback, their connections, and the practice of sharing your story and advocating for your organization.

There is no guidebook for the art of the ask, but these tips from Jayson, Jessamine, and Mira are a great starting point. Fundraising gets easier with practice; find ways to enjoy the conversations, the networking, and the hunt!