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Joanne Oppelt

About Joanne

How to Build Donor Relationships with Government Funders

In the first installment of this six-part series, I explain why successful nonprofit fundraising is NOT about the money. In Part 2, we explore how how to build donor relationships with individuals. In Part 3, we explore how to build donor relationships with foundations. In Part 4, we explore how to build donor relationships with corporations and other business entities. In this Part 5, we explore how to build donor relationships with government funders.

A Relationship with a Government Funder Is an Exchange Relationship

Just as with other types of donors, a relationship with a government funder is an exchange relationship. Each partner gets something out of it. Each partner can get their objective met through the relationship with the other partner. It’s still not about you or your organization; it’s about them and their needs, wants, and preferences. You need to know and speak to their values, needs, and motivations. You need to research them. Thoroughly. Like other institutional funders, they will be interested in your financial health. They want to make sure you have the capacity to programmatically and financially handle a governmental contract and that your organization will be around for a while. They will also be interested in the extent of your reach in the community. And like other institutional donors, government funders will be interested in data. Back up your claims with data.

So, what’s different?

Building relationships with government funders is very different than building relationships with individuals, foundations, and corporations in that in building government relationships you have two distinct groups you need to reach: the legislators who makes the laws that provide and allocate the funding and the government employees who enforce the rules of the legislation. To effectively communicate with government officials, both elected and employed, you research them differently than individuals, foundations, and corporations. The word “mission” needs to be interpreted slightly differently when dealing with the government than with other types of donors. And the motivations of legislators and government employees are very different than those of individuals, foundations, or corporations. In other words, your government fundraising strategy is different and more complicated than the fundraising strategies of other types of donors.

Let’s talk about legislators first.

Building Relationships with Legislators

Legislators are in office because of one thing: people’s votes put them there. And that is elected officials’ primary objective: getting enough votes to stay in office. If you as a fundraiser want to get the attention of an elected official, talk about what’s in the voters’ minds. What’s important to the community. What issues are important to community voting blocks. Who are your agency’s constituencies? Not only the clients, but also the supporters, like the advocates, the donors and the partner groups. How big a group are they? How influential are they? What is your reach with them? What is your influence with them? How are your agency’s issues important to the public? How do addressing your agency’s issues effect the community and the way it votes?

You, as a nonprofit, for legal reasons may not be able to lobby for specific candidates or legislation, but you can advocate for your cause and educate your legislators about community issues. And you can educate your community about legislative issues. Do you know what issues are important to your community? Have you asked them? Do you sit on community boards? Do you know what issues are coming up for a vote? Do you have communication channels you already have in place that you can leverage to educate your constituencies about community issues? Do you survey your clients, staff, volunteers, or donors? What are the voter’s concerns? How do you know?

You also need to talk about mission, the public greater good. How do you talk about your mission to legislators about your agency’s mission? Do you talk about the plight of your unfortunate clients or do you talk about the opportunity to improve the community of the people who vote? Come from a position of strength, not weakness. Come from a perspective of here is how we can work together in addressing community issues that are going to help me fulfill my mission and help you look good in the eyes of the voters.

Elected officials also need exposure. Do you offer any fundraising or networking events where they can speak to potential voters? What about your communication channels with clients, staff, volunteers, donors, and partner agencies — can you leverage them?

Do you leverage existing advocacy and communication activities as part of your government fundraising strategy? If not, you should.

Building Relationships with Government Employees

The other needs and wants you must be aware of to be successful in getting government funding are those of the employed staff: the program officers and their reports. If you got picked for government funding, the mission of your government-funded program is assumed to be the mission described in the legislation. It is assumed that the legislation and the regulations surrounding it are approved by a majority of the voters through their opportunities for public comment. It is the job of the government employees to enforce the will of the people as stated in the legislation and regulations. Government employees aren’t in the game to get votes. They’re in the game to carry out the government funding according to the rules and regulations. It’s up to the government staffers to implement the program as mandated by law.

Government employees are accountable to elected officials. Usually as part of a huge bureaucracy. Where they probably don’t have much control. If you want to get along with a government employee, know all the rules and regulations and follow them. It will make the government employee’s life easier. And relations with government funders will be easier.

But knowing all the rules and regulations associated with any particular governmental funding allocation is easier said than done. First of all, you need to know the legislation that determined the funding. And you need to know the legislation that law was built on. And the one before that. Sometimes, you need to go back to legislation that is decades old. It takes a lot of time and effort.

Then you need to know the regulations surrounding financial and program operations of the funding. The government has particular financial and programmatic restrictions that must be followed. And your agency will, sooner or later, be audited. If you don’t pass the audit, you may have to return money that was already spent that you don’t have. Or you may be sanctioned and subject to harsher reporting requirements. Not to mention the PR nightmares that can ensue.

So next time that government employee gets on your case about whatever minor infraction you may have committed, thank your lucky stars that it’s being called to your attention while it’s fixable without severe consequences. You may be annoyed, but it may be saving your agency.

In the next installment I will bring it all together (Part 6).

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