This advice could be worth a million dollars

Several interviews with officials of philanthropic foundations and a panel session on philanthropic giving for school and college directors of development have elicited some useful information for those who seek funding for nonprofit institutions.

First and foremost, they all agree that there is a need to correct a false impression about the purpose of foundations -- they are not (repeat "not") in the charity business; they are contractors.

As one official put it, "Look on our funding as a fee for delivery of services." Another: "We're charitable, but not charity. We're contractors. We want to invest in services as they fulfill our goals and purposes."

All the foundation officials agreed on a second point -- the need for some ongoing relationship, the need for those in need of (as well as deserving of) funds to make personal contact between the director, head, president, provost, or what have you of the institution and one or more officials of a foundation.

And they agreed on a third: Before making any personal contact, do some homework. Use "The Foundation Directory" (distributed by Columbia University press) to find those whose giving patterns appear to fit your needs. Then call or write and ask to see copies of the last three years' annual reports. Study these reports carefully, noting not only which organizations received money, but for what types of projects.

Note, too, whether there is some way for you to join with one or more other community-serving institutions, hence providing a further outreach for each dollar invested.

With the very fewest exceptions, foundations do not want long, wordy, detailed proposals -- certainly not in the initial contact. Instead, something under four double-spaced, typewritten pages is sufficient to introduce and spell out just what the request is for.

Another point of agreement: "You really have to know what you're talking about." About 300 foundations spend $25 million or more a year, for education, and the officials who determine the distribution of funds are experts in their fields. Many were once themselves college presidents, school directors, professors, or business administrators, and they expect that those approaching them for funds will have worked out the important details of just why the funds are needed, how they are to be distributed, what impact they are expected to have, and so forth.

Having done the homework, having written a draft proposal, now is the time to approach the foundation personally. Who should present the request? Whoever is head of the institution. As one foundation official laughingly said: "Put the top man in a three-piece suit, brief him well, and send him in to the foundation office prepared to walk out with a contract."

Another point of agreement: If a foundation generally makes grants in the $10 ,000-to-$20,000 range, don't ask for half a million dollars. In other words, if you need millions to carry out some grand design, and you want to take advantage of foundation funds, then think of some way to elicit some funds from one foundation and other funds from another, and so forth.

Foundations do like joint projects, whether it is several institutions with the same goal working under the same grant or one institution working with several foundations.

After a grant is given, the receiving institution has a continued responsibility -- based on the concept that the grant was a fee for services. Foundation officials want to be kept abreast of what's happening on the project. As one official explained:

"We all know that no project is going to go as planned. We know that, and we expect it, but we want to be kept abreast. We want frequent contact.Not large formal reports, at least not at this foundation or at most I know about, but informal reports."

Asked if he wanted that "top" man in his three-piece suit to come back for an interim visit or two, he replied, "Wouldn't hurt."

What about trying to get funds from a foundation by contacting one or more members of the board of directors? Here there was disagreement. Some said it was a good way to approach a foundation; others, that it made a poor impression and put foundation officials on guard.

They did agree that if someone in an institution was well acquainted with a foundation board member, it would neverm do any harm to keep the lines of communication open. Again, the foundation officials emphasized that whoever the contact person is must know the complete details of the project, must be well informed and utterly truthful.

What should an institution do if the project fails -- if a foundation's funds didn't carry out the service it gave them for?

"Tell the truth," was the unanimous advice. "Always tell the truth. We understand that the best-designed plans fail. Just warn us, tell us, and maybe we can help."

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