"Be Fruitful and Multiply:" A Grantseeker's Guide to a Long Relationship

By Susan L. Golden:

Of all the lies our parents tell us, the most pernicious is that romantic stories end, "…and they lived happily ever after."

In fundraising as in marriage, there really is no "…happily ever after." There is only a lot of work.

Many of those new to grantseeking focus exclusively on the grant they are trying to get. This perspective is like that of a suitor romancing a beauty queen with the goal being only a one-night stand. Of course it can be done, but really, why bother?

Like most women, I am a big proponent of marriage – with all of its various benefits and costs. On the plus side, marriage provides the ultimate in sharing resources, easy companionship, documented health benefits, health insurance, vacation home(s) and ultimately, retirement assets. On the minus side, of course, there are the in-laws, the family dynamics, the plumbing, the inevitable flu, the laundry and having to share the TV remote and the thermostat. On balance, however, many of us believe that marriage is worth the hassle. So, too, in fundraising.

When you're thinking about approaching a funder for a grant, think of the first grant as the honeymoon, merely a prelude to a lifetime of continuous and expanding support. Being in the game for the long haul is the only thing that makes it worth putting up with all the nonsense: the intellectual contortions, the need to respond to a funder's whims, having to tolerate all the arbitrary requirements. Of course, you will not wonder for long that the verb we use to talk about sending in a grant application is "to submit."

Once you have cashed that first check, and metaphorically washed the rice out of your hair, it's time to get to work!

In grantseeking as in marriage, the first ten years are the hardest.

To reach each "anniversary" or subsequent grant, you need to sustain the relationship. This can best be done by practicing sound relationship habits. Looking forward to celebrating lots of "anniversaries," we review the first ten years' traditional anniversary gifts, and discuss how each reflects values that help your funding relationship thrive.

First Anniversary – Paper – During the first year, and indeed, throughout your long and hopefully fruitful relationship, the most important thing is to communicate. Send newsletters, hand-written (!) notes, reports, and copies of news articles. Do not succumb to the temptation to e-mail. If your organization has moved to electronic newsletters, it is all the more important to make sure you send items through the old fashioned post. The act of opening an envelope, touching a piece of paper and seeing a hand-written signature is far more intimate than reading keystrokes on a monitor. Your funder will file your hand-written notes and personal letters. In addition to communicating on paper, of course, call regularly as well. In an increasingly virtual world, it is easy for a funder to think of you as one of the hundreds of correspondents who vie for his attention. Voicemails are more "real" than e-mails.

Second Anniversary – Cotton – The classic anniversary gift to mark the second year is a two-person cotton hammock. Such a gift is an apt symbol for the grantee-grantor relationship at this point. Any movement by one occupant will be felt by the other. The balance is precarious. A big wind gust can upset the whole thing. Both occupants need to be always respectful and careful.

Third Anniversary – Leather – Keep your shoes on. You may be tempted to walk around barefoot, but a little formality will help sustain your relationship. At this point, you may be tempted to begin to share confidences, express frustration, and let the funder in on "family secrets." Don't. Remember, this is a relationship of great imbalance in terms of the power distribution. The funder has most, you have almost none. Never forget this. All the funders' blather about being partners notwithstanding, you are and always will be a supplicant.

Fourth Anniversary – Fruit and Flowers – We take this one literally. When entertaining a funder, or when selecting a gift, be modest. If you're hosting the funder to a visit, offer simple food, like fruit. No lobster. No steak. If sending a holiday present, focus on something memorable and inexpensive, rather than projecting an image of extravagance. A recording made by your kids' choir, a photo of a grateful patient, a certificate for a tree. Always maintain that delicate balance between professional and needy. By definition, funders are the ones with money. Fly coach.

Fifth Anniversary – Wood – The patience required to build a good funding relationship is like that required to grow a tree. You need the seed, you need the cultivation, you need the right conditions, and most of all, you need time. In fact, you may be harvesting fruit from a tree planted by your predecessor, or you may be planting seeds for your successor. Either way, it's OK. Trees provide fruit and shade and benefit the environment for generations. Take the long view.

Sixth Anniversary – Candy and Iron – This odd combination reflects one of the dualities of the grantee-grantor relationship. Of course, it is as sweet as candy to receive grant funding. The other half of this duo is about strength. The strength of any funder should not be underestimated. Getting a grant from one funder can influence other funders positively and, sadly, the reverse is true as well. Tevya, the eponymous "Fiddler on the Roof," sings about this. In his meditative "If I were a Rich Man, " he muses, "When you're rich, they think you really know." And while there are some knowledgeable, capable people who work for foundations and government agencies, there are others. Regardless, their one overarching characteristic is the power derived from their resources. You never want to alienate the affections of any program officer, ever. You may decide that accepting their support is not worth the nonsense that must be tolerated, but it is always best not to burn any bridges, tell them what you really think, and so forth.

Seventh Anniversary – Copper and Wool – Another odd combo, which also well characterizes this often uneasy alliance. Like copper, the grantee-grantor relationship is highly conductive. Information and gossip flow through this relationship like electricity through copper wires. The slightest word, and the relationship can go off the tracks. You will want to be mindful of this conductivity when talking with executives or board members of both your own and other nonprofits.

Then, too, the reminder about wool is also useful. You will make it to your seventh anniversary, and hopefully to lots of subsequent anniversaries, only by being honest. You don't want to volunteer anything that might reflect poorly on you (see "Third Anniversary" above)…but you also absolutely cannot deceive. Grantees who try to "pull the wool" over grantmakers' eyes don't stay grantees for long.

Eighth Anniversary – Bronze -- Bronze is far less flashy than gold, but stronger. As your relationship endures, and trust builds, it can sustain more weight. At this point, if the funder's resources are adequate, you can be asking for more significant grants.

Ninth Anniversary – Pottery and Willow – Another peculiar pairing from the Anniversary List. The reference to pottery is yet another good reminder about the fragility of the funding relationship. Any breach of trust will cause it to shatter.

As for the willow, this reminds us that flexibility is the hallmark of the good grantee. Getting along with your grant maker requires that you be willing to shift priorities (when the funder shifts), re-frame your thinking, and generally "go with the flow," as set by the grant maker. If you're rigid, you can cling to your principles all the way to Deficit-land.

Tenth Anniversary – Tin or Pewter – By the tenth year, you might be tempted to think that you can relax and take a funder for granted. Nothing could be further from the truth. By Year 10, your relationship is strong, like the tin or pewter which celebrates this landmark. By now, you know each other very well, and there may be little lustre. After all, it's not silver. But then, too, it's easier to maintain than silver. And although it may not require polishing, it does need to be dusted, cleaned, and treated with respect.

Hopefully, however, if you can get through these first ten years, you will be well on your way to the decades to come. Go watch "When Harry Met Sally" again. Like the long married couples shown in the intermissions, couples who finish each others' sentences, but still giggle remembering their early days, your goal should be to position yourself for a "Golden Anniversary" photos – two smiling people – perhaps a bit wrinkled and worn - taking pride in your shared accomplishments and still, somehow, miraculously, on speaking terms.

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