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Debbie DiVirgilio, GPC

About Debbie

Henry Berman Offered Sage Advice at the GPA Conference

At the 2012 Grant Professionals Conference in Indianapolis, Henry Berman, Chief Executive Officer of the Association of Small Foundations, was one of the featured speakers. Mr. Berman provided conference attendees with keys to success when seeking grant funds from foundations. I thought it would be valuable to briefly share in this article his major points and something of my own thoughts along the way.

Present an Interesting Case for Support

Mr. Berman suggested that grant professionals must present their case in an interesting manner. As the grant writer, it is our responsibility to tell foundations our organization’s story—but not just a snippet of our stories. It is our responsibility to tell the whole story. We must paint an entire canvas that clearly depicts our story. It is our job to remember that it will be very difficult to connect with a foundation that does not know our whole story. We must not forget that as grant writers, we are the only ones that can tell it to them.

We can begin to paint our canvas by telling our history—when was the organization started, by whom, why, etc. Then, we continue by sharing who we are as an organization today-what we have accomplished, what issues we are facing, etc. Finally, share a brief vision of the future—are we planning new programs and services to meet the needs of our community, to solve the problems or issues facing those we serve.

Build Upon the Strengths and Talents of Foundation Board Members

Secondly, Mr. Berman advised grant professionals to engage foundation board members’ strengths and talents. He encouraged us to find ways for them to work side by side with us. As the foundation members become more involved with the work that our organizations are doing, they will see the benefits of our work and look for additional ways to partner with us. However, he warned that we must ensure that we are not connecting non-existent dots that may not actually connect your organization to a foundation’s interests. If you do so, you risk that the foundations will see through your efforts and will ultimately feel that you have misled them.

Building such partnerships requires us as grant professionals to thoroughly research and understand the foundation’s interests and giving priorities. We can do this by looking at the foundation’s 990 to see what other organizations they have supported and how much they typically give. To truly understand the foundation, we can also make a phone call and, if they are local, schedule an appointment to talk with foundation representatives. It is particularly important to make sure that we do not use this time as an opportunity to ask for money, but instead as an opportunity to learn about the foundation and to introduce our organization and the work we are doing in the community. Armed with this information, you can extend an invitation to foundation board members to be involved in activities of your organization.

Show Program Activity

Additionally, he advised that grant professionals show program activity in their work, not just document the progress achieved by grant-funded efforts. In other words, we should share both setbacks and successes. Remember, foundations are run by people who recognize that programs and services are not going to always go as planned—for a multitude of reasons. Furthermore, they recognize that some of the challenges that are incurred may well be out of our organization’s control. It is also important that we share with the foundation what we have learned from our setbacks and how we are using the information to make our programs and services stronger and more effective.

For instance, when our organization receives awards or media recognition, we can send a copy to those foundations we are working with so that our success becomes their success. On the other hand, when we face challenges for which we are not prepared, we also need to share them. For example, if our program director leaves the organization and this creates a gap in our program services, we should share that information along with a plan to solve the problem.


Communication with foundation representatives is essential! Mr. Berman suggests being predictably unpredictable. In other works, communicate frequently throughout the year. When my organization has information to share, I should do so. We can send the foundation our newsletters and other communications about the happenings at the organization. However, we should only communicate when we have something to say, not just for the sake of communicating. Note that in this day and age of electronic communication, a hand-written note can go a long way in expressing our gratitude and in supporting the relationship we want to develop with the foundation. As we all know, effective communications are at the heart of all relationships and build upon the long-term development of repeated grant contracts and gifts.

I have found that personally writing a thank you note as well as sending a more formal typed acknowledgement letter is most effective. These handwritten notes help the foundation to know that I value them and their relationship with my organization. Plus, a handwritten note always stands out amongst all the other letters received. Additionally, I then make sure that the foundation is recognized in newsletters, electronic publications and other strategies we use to communicate with donors, foundations and those we serve.

Community Investments

Above all, Mr. Berman advised that grant professionals remember that grant contracts are investments made by foundations to solve or assist in meeting a community need. Foundations do not want to fund desperate situations or sinking ships. They want to fund proactive strategies that will have long-term, positive impacts. They seek to make the best investment of their dollars.

As grant professionals, it is our job to tell them why our programs are the wisest investment—keeping in mind that there are many other organizations competing for each and every one of the available dollars.


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