What’s the secret to securing funding from foundations?
To be clear, I don’t claim to be an expert in this field. However, I can certainly share insights from my decade-long experience of elevating Mongabay’s foundation support from zero to about $5 million last year.
The right messaging
When I initially began seeking funding from foundations, I received no response about 90% of the time. When I did receive a response, it was almost invariably, “no thanks”.
Despite my belief that my initial outreach was targeted (e.g. foundations that supported areas aligning with Mongabay’s work like journalism and conservation), I soon recognized a need to revise my targeting and messaging.
Program officers at philanthropic foundations are usually in the business of giving away money effectively. That last word is important: You might be surprised how many times I’ve been told that it’s hard to give away money effectively.
In that initial outreach, I put too much emphasis on what Mongabay is doing rather than how its work could help program officers better accomplish their foundation’s objectives.
So I tailored my message to explain the value proposition of Mongabay’s independent journalism. This was a nuanced argument because to many, journalism can feel like a peripheral intervention when compared with establishing a protected area, for example.
Know your strengths
My job was to explain how objective journalism – distinct from public relations (PR) and communications – could act as a catalyst in several ways, including informing key decision makers, increasing awareness, and functioning as a due diligence tool.
Understand your audience
Adapting my message and ensuring it reached the right person required research to understand a foundation’s strategy and objectives, as well as the individuals responsible for granting funds to organizations. Program officers are typically inundated with requests – keeping your message short and clear may help it break through.
In the fundraising world, it’s often said that “People give to people, not causes.” This might be less true with institutional foundations, but relationship-building is still critical.
My success rates with cold outreach have been low – the most common response to my foundation inquiries remains a lack of response. Don’t hesitate to ask current donors for appropriate introductions to other funders.
One reason, I believe, for Mongabay’s high renewal rate from foundations is our commitment to gathering evidence of the impact of our work. Providing an example of impact can be a great way to follow up with a donor.
While everything I’ve shared here is very basic, I confess I’ve overlooked these points myself at times.
Foundations aren’t easy, but they can provide a strong base of support.