Four ways to keep grant applications to corporations on target

Building on the three truths about corporate giving shared yesterday, our (imaginary friend the) corporate philanthropy director has four additional things to tell you!

1. Remember that in grantmaking, she has to play it safe.

Many corporate philanthropy programs are about serving the largest numbers of people across the broadest regions in the least controversial ways.

If corporate giving was a painting in a museum, it would be a Norman Rockwell. Corporations like to fund projects that are about puppies and kittens and children and literacy and Thanksgiving turkeys.

So, if appropriate for your organization, pitch projects that are easy to understand and that serve the maximum numbers of people. Save the policy-developing, envelope-pushing projects for your individual donors and private foundations that care about social change.

Also, most corporations are leery of being the first corporate funder of a nonprofit. “It's not a good business practice,” the corporate philanthropy director says.

For that reason, she is likely to include a question on the grant application asking you to list the top corporate funders of your nonprofit. In looking at your other corporate donors, she will ask herself, “Are these the organizations we want to be associated with? What is the appropriate level for us to give based on what the organization is getting from other corporations?”

2. Do your very best to directly and completely answer every question on the corporation’s grant application form (even when the questions don't seem that important to you).

All the questions in the application form are there for a reason. You need to do the research to answer them well.

For example, a corporate grant application may ask how many of their employees volunteer with your organization.

You could look at this as a softball question – something to fill space in the application and for which your answer doesn’t really matter. Or you could look at it as an unfair question – maybe your nonprofit doesn’t have a constituent relationship management database that captures tons of information about volunteers, donors and clients, and cross-references all this information, and so the question would be administratively difficult to answer.

But it doesn’t matter what you think of the question. Your response to the question is what matters.

If you respond to the question about the number of volunteers by writing, “unknown,” you are sending a message that your organization does not value its volunteers or can’t manage information about its operation.

3. Listen to the corporate philanthropy director when she tells you about secret pots of money that no one else is applying for.

I sometimes go to “meet the funders” events (in which foundation and corporate philanthropy program officers speak to a group of nonprofits about their programs) – these events are typically organized by nonprofit support centers such as DC’s Center for Nonprofit Advancement, Philadelphia’s Nonprofit Center at LaSalle University, and New York’s Support Center for Nonprofit Management.

At every such event I’ve gone to, the corporate philanthropy representative on the panel has told us about some greatly undersubscribed pool of money that they have – funding that they’d like to give to nonprofits, if the nonprofits would only ask for it.

Though the “secret” programs aren’t a secret at all (typically they’re publicized on the company’s website right alongside information about its main grant program), grantseekers overlook these additional programs or think they’re not qualified for or interested in them. Because few organizations apply for these special grant programs, competition is lower and your odds of success are higher.

For example, one national corporation has a capital/building projects fund available for nonprofits in specific geographic regions of the country. With the depressed economy, few nonprofits are engaged in building new program facilities. This leaves a lot of money on the table for the corporation’s special fund. They’d love to see more applications for it.

Another national corporation has a special fund for training of nonprofit staffers – the grants can be used to pay for professional development classes and workshops. The corporation always has surplus grant money in this pool because they get few applicants.

When you call a corporate funder to introduce yourself and your organization, you should always politely inquire about whether they have any special grant funds outside of their main grantmaking program. And If there are “meet the funder” events in your region where corporate foundation officers will candidly share information about their programs, go to those events and take notes!

By the way, I’ve seen the same pattern with some federal agencies. If you talk to a federal grant program officer, you can learn about which programs get fewer applications and therefore are less competitive. On the other hand, I haven't experienced this very much with family foundations, which often hold their cards closer to their chest in terms of undersubscribed grant programs and discretionary funding available.

4. If you’re trying to get a donation of product or “in-kind” service, talk about this donation in ways that demonstrate you value it.

A corporate giving officer’s pet peeve is when grantseekers don’t give enough respect to an “in-kind” donation of the company’s product or commodity. Often a product donation is like cash out the door to them. (This can vary based on how the company’s business model works.)

Don’t de-value a product donation.

Don’t call her and say, “I’m only asking for (two airline tickets, a case of office supplies, or whatever the company’s product is).” As one corporate giving officer said, “Especially when it's the company's commodity, it's very uncomfortable for me when you downgrade an in-kind gift.”

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I didn’t write this post after having drinks with a corporate giving officer. But I have attended several “meet the funders” events convened by nonprofit development centers in different east coast cities. The ideas above are a composite of what I’ve heard from different corporate giving officers.

Not all of the information shared here is accurate for each and every corporate giving program – because they’re all a little bit different!

In your experience seeking grants from corporate grantmaking programs, what have you learned?  Please share your stories in the comments!