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Two philanthropy alumni shed light on relationship building in their arena

By Abby Rolland, communications project manager, Lilly Family School of Philanthropy

Foundation giving represented about 18 percent of the estimated $427 billion Americans gave to charitable organizations in 2018, according to the Giving USA 2019 report recently released by Giving USA Foundation and the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. That is the largest share of total giving to come from foundations since 1954, the first year for which data is available. Giving by foundations increased by 7.3 percent (4.7 percent when adjusted for inflation) last year, growing to $75.86 billion – the highest dollar amount ever given, even after adjusting for inflation.

Rachel Hutchisson, chair of Giving Institute and vice president of corporate citizenship and philanthropy for Blackbaud said, “(This) highlights the importance of institutions to the philanthropic landscape, and serves as a reminder that different types of approaches to philanthropy are vital for strengthening and expanding the field.”

So how do nonprofits establish relationships with foundations, and what tips and ideas would assist them in fundraising from a foundation?

Two IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at IUPUI alumni working in philanthropy shed some light on the process of establishing and maintaining relationships with foundations.

While Vice President of Programs at the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust, Jeff Small has spent the past five years working on the grantmaking side of philanthropy, he didn’t begin his career in the foundation field. After serving for two years as an AmeriCorps member at Peace Learning Center and earning his master’s degree in philanthropic studies at the then-Center on Philanthropy, Small worked in a fundraising and program development role at the Boys & Girls Club of Indianapolis.

This experience, along with his subsequent work in neighborhood outreach, research, fundraising consulting, writing and grant management prepared him for his current role, where he oversees the programming team of the Trust in Indianapolis and Phoenix. His past and current experiences have taught him about the importance of seeing both sides of institutional fundraising and grantmaking.

For Small, fundraisers need to think in terms of relationships.

“We want to invest in organizations to increase impact. Nonprofits have ideas, expertise and access, which foundations need. Foundations have to give away money, so working with partners that provide boots-on-the-ground knowledge and work is necessary.”

Small also believes that foundations can do more to be transparent to nonprofits and potential grantees.

“At the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust, we try to be as open as possible. Our website lists deadlines and other information about the grant application process, as well as clearly defining our funding priorities and past grant decisions. We’re always happy to take phone calls with fundraisers interested in the Trust’s work to see if we would be a potential good match for funding.”

Cassandra Tice views fundraising from foundations from a different perspective. The grants officer for the IU Health Foundation also began her career in AmeriCorps, as a VISTA at Indiana Youth Institute, where she learned the basics of proposal writing and grants management. Her career led her to a development position at Jameson Camp and then a grant proposal writing position at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, during which she began taking classes at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

Recently, she began working at the IU Health Foundation, which was established in 2018 to grow and expand philanthropic support for IU Health — to amplify its already impressive impact on individual and community health. Gifts help Hoosiers gain expanded access to the latest healthcare treatments and technologies.

Tice encourages fundraisers to learn about the environment and various roles of foundations in the community.

“Sit down and meet with your peers. Even if you don’t work at the same institution, it’s helpful to learn as much as you can about the environment you’re working in, as well as personal experiences with foundations whose missions may align with yours.

“Also, think about joining professional grantwriting and other philanthropy-focused organizations. It helps build your network and learn more about the field in a certain area as well.”

Both Small and Tice emphasized that both foundations and nonprofits share a common goal: they are seeking to make a difference.

“We rely on smart, dedicated, nonprofits to use Trust money to better the world,” Small explained.

Tice added, “Never be afraid to ask questions – we’re all working to build a better community and better world.”

Small’s advice for fundraisers

  • Reorient your thinking.

“Nonprofits have something foundations need. Understand going into a conversation that it’s a dialogue of equals.”

  • On that note, think of yourself as an equal.

“When you’re engaging with foundations, consider yourself an equal. You’re offering the foundation an opportunity to engage with you and make a difference in this space.”

  • Don’t chase dollars.

“Chasing dollars can result in adapting your mission or goals to fit with the foundation’s, which may lead to mission drift or not trusting the programming that you already have.”  

  • Focus on the relationship.

“We want to enter into authentic, long-term relationships with smart, dedicated, strategic nonprofits where we can tap into their skills and scale up great ideas.”

Tice’s advice for fundraisers

  • Be as professional as possible.

“Even if foundations operate in a more relaxed environment, it’s important to maintain professionalism with them, whether you’re first establishing a relationship with them or trying to even out a real or perceived power imbalance.”  

  • Utilize your connections.

“If you have no prior relationship with a foundation, find someone on your staff or board who may have a connection in some way. A personal approach, rather than a cold call, may open the door for you more easily.”

  • Be aware of current trends or practices in the field.

“Be aware of online applications, their due dates, how the application is structured, etc. Even if you apply for a grant from the same foundation year after year, you never know when or how they may change the structure of accepting applications.”

  • Focus on the relationship.

“Communicating with foundations effectively and building those relationships is incredibly important in this field.”


Want to learn more about how to establish relationships with and fundraise from foundations? Check out The Fund Raising School’s webinar “Advice from the Funders,” featuring Small and program officer Jenna Wachtmann of the Ball Brothers Foundation.

Abby Rolland serves as the communications project manager at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, and is also working towards a master’s degree in philanthropic studies. She holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Gettysburg College.

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