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Joanne Oppelt

About Joanne

Grantsmanship: What They Don't Tell You (Part 2)

Editor’s Note: Last week in Part 1, we began with the first part of Chapter Two—“What They Don’t Tell You,” from Joanne Oppelt’s book, Confessions of a Successful Grants Writer, published by CharityChannel Press as part of the In the Trenches series. Joanne’s book offers expert advice for new and experienced grant writers as they seek to develop their skills as professional fund developers.

Part 2 is the second half of the chapter. Enjoy!

Corporate Perspectives

As opposed to foundations, the board directors of corporations are not accountable to a mission. They are accountable to stockholders. Stockholders are interested in profit. The primary motivation around corporations is profit. Always remember this.

Usually in a larger corporation there is a community relations person who is in charge of allocating corporate contributions, among other things. It is their job to make sure the company has a solid public image. This means that businesses nowadays want to be seen as involved with and helping their communities. Strong communities mean better business.

So to make a mark in the corporate funding arena, you want to be seen as a good partner. That means you must have a good brand, that is, a strong reputation in the community for achieving the goals you set out to do. You need to think of your organization the way a businessperson thinks of his or her business—what do I have to offer my consumers that sets me apart from my competitors? And it’s not just the end user of our services that is our consumer. In the nonprofit world you have multiple constituencies: clients, funders, regulators and the community at large. As we saw in Chapter One, corporate funders are savvy at dealing with multiple constituencies. You need to be too.

Corporate executives are used to dealing with business concepts and financial viability issues. They are experts in communicating their competitive advantages to their customers. To be perceived to be on top of your game to a corporation, then, you need to be concerned with the same issues they are. Questions to ask yourself before the corporate funder asks them are:

  • Am I successful? How do I know?
  • Is my business profitable? Do I run in the black? What else do my financial indicators say about me?
  • Will I be around in five years? How do I know? What is my plan?
  • Do I have strong leadership? Who makes the final decisions and why is he or she qualified to do so?
  • Am I well managed? Who is our management team?
  • What makes my organization unique? How am I different than others like me?
  • What kind of environment do I operate in? What are the risks? What are the opportunities?
  • Who is my competition? On what basis do we compete?
  • Who are my partners? What makes them good partners? How does that partnership help me achieve success?

These are the types of questions corporate executives must answer to their stockholders about their companies. In turn, they should be the type of questions you should answer for them. You are partners of theirs. How is helping you helping them? How can you be an asset to them reaching their goals?

But executives are busy people. They live in very fast-paced environments and are constantly pummeled with information. They want to be able to digest what you have to say very quickly. Which means short and easy to read. Pictures, charts and graphs work well. And generally, you have one page for each idea you are trying to communicate with no more than five pages to a packet, preferably three. If you’re limited to one page with pictures and charts with plenty of white space, you will not have a lot of room for text. The challenge is to be succinct and to the point without coming across as brusque or jarring. It takes a lot of work to do this well. You may go through several drafts.

As you may have figured out, I am not talking anymore about traditional proposal writing. What I am talking about, really, is developing corporate marketing materials. In my experience, the first step to developing a corporate contributions proposal is working on your marketing pitch. Corporations will want to know about your organization and your organization’s health before they ask about your need. They want to position themselves as successful and want to partner with successful nonprofits. That helps their image. In depth discussions about marketing are beyond the scope of this book. For recommended resources, see Appendix D.

Once you have materials ready for them, you have to get their attention. But how? Hundreds of people are trying to get their attention and giving away money is not one of their priorities – making a profit is. In my experience the most effective way to get corporate executives’ attention is to network with them. Attend events they will attend. For example, is the executive of the corporation being honored by any community groups? Who is selling tickets to the event? Will you be there? Is the executive active on any nonprofit boards? Which ones? What events do those nonprofits hold? Is the business active in their local Chamber of Commerce? Are there any Chamber networking groups you can join? Are you involved in their events?


Practical Tip

One of the tenets in advertising is name recognition. Advertisers pay dearly to make sure their product names are regularly communicated to the consumer. You need to make sure you get a corporate executive’s attention – your consumer in this case. The more you can get your organization name in front of a corporation, the better off you are. Networking pays off big.


In communicating with business executives, you also need to be aware of differences in corporate culture between your organization and theirs. Most, not all, business executives are on the conservative side of things – the way they dress, their social norms and their political views. Conversely, most, not all, nonprofits are on the more liberal side of things – they are more informal in their attire, there’s generally a family feel to the organizational environment and they politically lean a little more towards the left. Of course, there are exceptions. In any case, you will have two separate organizational cultures and value systems.

How do you meld these cultures while maintaining organizational integrity? Well, don’t ask them to change. They will be offended if you ask them to be like you or incorporate your points of view. What you need to do is understand their world as they see it. There are a myriad of ways to do this including reading the paper every day, especially the business section, subscribing to regular business publications and joining professional or educational groups such as Toastmaster International, The Drucker Institute or The American Association of University Women. Accept them as they are and meet them where they are. Focus on mutual goals rather than the differences you have in meeting those goals.

For example, I am currently active in a local regional Chamber of Commerce. I started working with them so that I could network with area businesses. I quickly learned just how diverse our respective world views were. Our solutions to societal problems were radically different. I believed in investing in a strong social safety net through tax allocations; they believed that investing through government wasted taxpayer dollars. I knew right away I needed help. So I started reading the business section of our statewide paper to keep up on the news of what was going on in the corporate world, to know what issues they were dealing with and to gain an understanding of their perspectives. I also subscribed to a statewide business publication, NJ Biz, to do the same thing. What I found out is where we similar. We both wanted strong, healthy vibrant communities. They wanted stronger communities so that they could attract good employees with attractive places to live, increase product production and raise the skill level of their workforce. We both wanted to keep people who were homeless off the street. We both wanted job creation. We both wanted higher literacy rates, graduation rates and educational attainment. I had a solution to some of their business needs. And I presented myself as a good business partner because I presented my organization in language they understood.

So now you are armed with information about your organization that is communicated in ways the corporate executive can digest it, you understand their issues and you’ve gotten their attention. What else do you need to do to ask corporations for money?

In my experience, persistence is vital. You will not get anywhere without persistence. As I’ve stated before, corporate executives are busy people and giving away money is not one of their priorities. Do not be discouraged if they say they will get back to you and never do. Do not be afraid to feel like you are pestering them. If you have a relationship with them, they will get to you when their priorities allow. Usually that’s a long time. So if they forget about you, don’t be afraid to remind them that you’re still there. But ALWAYS be respectful of their time, no matter how many times they’ve put you off. You are trying to convince them you are a good partner. How you handle frustration tells them a lot.


Story from the Real World

I had a company once that took me two years to get an appointment. I met the Director of Community Relations at a community event his company hosted. Two years of regular phone calls went by and I almost gave up. But then, in part because I wouldn’t go away and was nice about it and in part because my organization has a successful business strategy that I presented in corporate terms, he took me out to lunch and we talked. Next thing I knew, my organization was part of his charitable giving budget for the upcoming year. That was several years ago. I now have a relationship with him where I call every year to see at what amount we are in his budget. Of course, I’m more subtle than that. And I give him back things too. For example, I have volunteer activities for his workforce and I do public speaking to the youth with which his company works. The relationship is a business one: one of two partners working together. We both benefit. It is a win-win relationship.


Governmental Perspectives

Government funders are not accountable to Boards of Directors or stockholders. They are accountable to the taxpayers and the political system in which funding decisions are made. Understanding how the political system works is crucial to getting governmental funding.

Let’s start with politicians who make the laws. Politicians are elected into office by voters. Politicians maintain their jobs by keeping voters happy. Their political parties also help them get elected as each party works to influence voters. The more politicians of one party get elected, the more power that party has. Interest groups also affect elections as they provide a significant amount of the money that allows the politician to run a campaign and reach as many voters as possible. So, when you are approaching a politician about a funding decision, you need to take into account the perspectives of all these constituencies – voters, political parties and interest groups.

You need to deliver a win for the politician. You need to create jobs or provide housing or improve the quality of life in some way. Your project needs to be in line with what the politician promised the voters. Most of all, though, you need to improve the politicians’ brand just as you do with corporate partners. You need to give them positive visibility among their constituencies. They need to see you as someone who makes them look effective, as someone who helps the community they represent be a better place to live.

Accomplishing this means visiting legislators and getting to know their staff. Send them your newsletters and annual reports so they can see what you do in the community. Keep abreast of what bills they have proposed and where they stand on the issues so that you can be a resource for them. One of your organization’s strengths and your strength as a grant writer is that you specialize in whatever subject matter you and your organization are involved in and that someone in your organization works directly with the public. You probably have much more in depth knowledge of a particular area or the needs of a particular constituency than the legislators do just because you work with that population every day. Can you help a legislator understand an issue better? Send them a letter with a research article addressing that topic. Invite politicians for site visits so they can see your impact in the community.

What is your relationship with the community? How does the public perceive you? How involved are you with the public? Can you invite legislators to speak to your constituency or help them otherwise reach the voters? Be careful, though, if you do this. If you receive governmental funding, there are laws against lobbying that you must be aware of. You do not want to jeopardize your organization’s nonprofit status.



Although a nonprofit can advocate on many issues, there are strict rules against what kind of activities a nonprofit can engage in within the confines of its funding and tax exempt status. Generally, a nonprofit with governmental funding can educate its constituencies about candidates or legislation and they can conduct voter drives but they cannot directly lobby legislators or influence elections. To be safe, use revenue other than that of governmental funding when dealing with political issues.


A good governmental grant writer needs to know what is going on in the political environment around them so they know when to advance their cause. He or she need to be astute to the needs of legislators. Getting legislators’ attention can help you further your agenda. But first, you need to further theirs.

Another one of your target groups is government workers. Most civil servants have job security. They are, for the most part, not worried about keeping their jobs. Instead, they are worried about following and implementing the rules and regulations passed on by the politicians. They are the gatekeepers and enforcers. This is why governmental staff are really helpful to you in preparing an application. If you get funded, they will have to monitor you. They want the least amount of problems as possible from the start to reduce the amount of future problems they may face. This is a win-win for you. Governmental program staff want good proposals that follow all the rules. Usually, there is more than enough help in preparing adequate applications from webinars to conference calls to one-on-one technical assistance. Government staffers can be your best friends when applying for governmental funding. Use them. Listen to them. They are there to help you.

Most of your contact with governmental program staffers comes after you are funded. They need to make sure that public funds are spent wisely and in the manner for which they were approved. The easier you can make their job, the better. ALWAYS send in your reports on time. If there is a change to the scope of what you originally proposed, inform them immediately. Remember, they want you to succeed. Taking money back causes all sorts of bureaucratic nightmares they’d rather not have to resolve. So don’t make them your enemies by arguing with them. Yes, the government can be picky and some of what they ask for may not make much sense to you. Do it anyway—do what they ask. Government program staffers work in a political bureaucracy. They need to make their bosses, the politicians, look good. Help them do that in any way you can.


Practical Tip

Having your questions about what the rules mean and how to follow them BEFORE reporting begins makes life easier and smoothes the relationship with the governmental staffers.


So we’ve talked about the different perspectives that motivate different type of funders. Astute grants writers understand the audience to whom they are writing and present information in a way that that audience best comprehends. You must present yourself and your organization as good partner to multiple constituencies, no matter who the funder.

To Recap

  • Always follow the rules of the funder.
  • Present your request in ways the funder best comprehends.
  • Be attentive to your brand.
  • Utilize available funding staff to give you an edge.
  • Be persistent.
  • Be respectful of differences.

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