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The Shotgun Approach

The “shotgun approach” refers to a proposal submission tactic that seems to be used by far too many organizations. The basic premise is to identify as many possible funding sources as possible and send applications to each of them, hoping something will hit the “target.” Normally the application is identical with only the address and salutation changed. The results are normally to the same — dismal to no response from the “pot of gold” agencies believed was simply waiting for them.

The organizations fail to conduct the most basic of research regarding these funders. A quick search using broad criteria will always result in a windfall of “potential” funding sources. Often organizations pull only the necessary information from a foundation database or web site and print the request letter. Without investing time in digging deeper into available information, the agency sets itself up to fail. Mailing form letters masked as proposals has very little chance of succeeding in attracting donor interest.

When I challenge the approach in trainings and consultations, the answer is often the same. “We don’t have the time to research each funder.” I argue the time spent sending out ineffective proposals is probably equal to the time spent analyzing funder interests and criteria and eliminating funders not offering a good match for the program. I also assert the time spent refining a proposal to address funder interest is directly linked to the likelihood of attracting the attention of the reviewer during the initial review phase when most ill-suited proposals are eliminated.

The “shotgun approach” fails for two primary reasons:

One size fits all proposals don’t fit funders. Yes, it is easier to write a proposal one time but that time is wasted if the proposal fails to garner funding from any source. While the basic premise may work with a funder’s overall guidelines, it is the organization’s responsibility to speak to all the ways a program may meet a funder’s interests. Funders are looking to support projects that closely match their interests. The time spent identifying unique similarities between your program and the funder’s interests will enable you to prepare a proposal that links those shared interests. The result is a proposal that will gain the interest of the funding source.

While you never want to alter a program solely to meet funder guidelines (I am talking about entirely changing a program simply for the sake of getting funding) you also never want to miss an opportunity to link your program to funder interests. Funders will not necessary give you a list of everything they like. Often this information materializes from additional research. Review grantmaking histories to identify the types of programs funded. Examine information about the programs on the web sites of funded organizations or the funder itself. Better yet, contact the funded program and request information. When preparing a proposal, let the funder know you are familiar with their grantmaking history and demonstrate replication of best practices they have already funded.

Too many proposals are sent that don’t meet funder criteria. A basic premise within funding research is that a project and funder must “match” on four basic criteria: geography, mission, program, and budget.

The funder must be willing to fund within your region/area; they must be willing to fund organizations like yours; they must be willing to fund program concepts like yours; and they must be willing/capable of funding at the requested level. Just because a funder has provided support within your state does not mean they will fund in your community. When assessing funders, it is imperative to examine their funding history. If you work in Northern California and a California funding source has only contributed in San Diego, they are not going to take interest in your proposal.

Mission and program interest must match once geographic criteria have been met. Just because a funder expresses an interest in funding AIDS/HIV issues does not mean they will fund an outreach program. Again, examine their giving history. If all of the grantmaking activity occurs within the research realm, you are not likely to obtain funding for outreach or education.

Budget issues are critical. Examine a funder’s capacity to commit funds at the level you require. It is senseless to request $250,000 from a funder who has holdings of less than $100,000. Not all foundations are multimillion dollar machines. Many family foundations have smaller holdings and their granting activity reflects this. It is acceptable to scale down proposals or present a portion of a program to funders with smaller giving patterns. You won’t know to do this unless you do the research first, though.

Consider making contact with the potential funder, if appropriate. Some foundations will discuss potential program ideas and offer insight. Others do not want contact, at all. If an email address is available, initiate contact to determine if the funder would be willing to speak with you over the telephone. If you succeed in making contact but the funder does not encourage a discussion, respect their approach.

An organization that fails to research a funding source before submitting an application does a disservice. A funder may be a viable source of support for a different project or may be more suitable for a future activity. Failure to get funding on the first try may stop an organization from approaching the funder later. It may also create a poor impression with a funder who will unfortunately remember your lack of attention to detail with a future submission.

Spending time to adequately research a funder makes sense and supports a basic premise of the development profession. If you were preparing to ask a major donor, or prospect, for a significant gift, would you go into the meeting unprepared? I doubt it. I also doubt that you would consider offering the exact same opportunity to every major donor. We understand the importance of matching our donor’s interests with agency need. Foundations and corporate giving programs deserve the same attention and fact finding we would give to an individual donor or prospect.

About the Contributor: Julie Bornhoeft

Julie Seewald Bornhoeft, MA, CFRE has been raising funds for nonprofit organizations for more than 13 years. Ms. Bornhoeft has extensive experience in funder identification, proposal development, grants management, and outcome evaluation. Her proposal development and grants management experience is balanced with experience designing and implementing comprehensive fund development plans for organizations with annual budgets ranging from $150,000 to $22 million.

Ms. Bornhoeft’s career has emphasized working with social service organizations with an emphasis on social change missions. She has successfully raised funds to address domestic violence, sexual assault, homelessness, hunger, youth services, youth development, and aging services.

Ms. Bornhoeft obtained the Certified Fund Raising Executive credential in 2001 and as Master of Arts in Philanthropy and Development from St. Mary’s University of Minnesota in 2004. As a firm believer in the importance of continued professional development, Ms. Bornhoeft maintains a personal commitment to education through regular reading of materials regarding sector and societal trends, attending conferences, and writing in regards to fundraising techniques, trends, and opportunities.

Ms. Bornhoeft is currently employed as the Director of Development and Community Relations for WEAVE, Inc., Sacramento County, California’s sole provider of comprehensive services to survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. In addition to her professional work, she is the current Past President of the California Capital Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals and a member of the Sacramento Public Relations Association.

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