7 ‘Big bummers’ for charitable trusts and foundations

(Or, 7 ways to improve your foundation fundraising skills)

“Why is it, that so many nonprofit organizations send in applications to foundations, without even taking the time to find out where these foundations stand for?” I was having a conversation with Jos Verhoeven, managing director of the Dutch Start Foundation. He continued: “I just don’t get it. About 25% of the applications we receive as a foundation, have nothing to do with the mission we stand for. I mean, if you need a mortgage, you don’t go to supermarket to get one, do you? So why send in applications to foundations that don’t match with your mission?”

Nobody knows exactly how many foundations are active in The Netherlands. Some say there are hundreds; some say there are thousands. There’s no (complete) database. What we do know, is that 106 foundations support nonprofits with € 215 million each year. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg. You would think that, with so many foundations to ‘practice’ with, Dutch fundraisers are experts in foundation fundraising. In order to find out of this is true, I called several people who represent Dutch charitable trusts and foundations. I learned two things:

  • Although most of them receive lots and lots of applications, many foundations still struggle to find projects that really match to their mission.
  • And most importantly, I learned that a lot of nonprofits still have to improve in writing their proposals.

So, the question is: how can we improve our foundation fundraising skills? In order to do so, let me share 7 ‘big bummers’ with you that foundations experience when receiving applications.

Bummer 1: ‘One size fits all’

Foundation fundraising is not about producing applications like it’s confection. “I immediately notice it when I receive a standard application,” says Henk van Stokkom, who represents several Dutch foundations. “Sometimes nonprofits just create one proposal, and send it to lots of foundations. Like ‘one size fits all’. The thing is, we support about 230 nonprofits each year and receive even more applications. It’s a hell of a job to get in contact with all of those nonprofits, that just didn’t read our conditions.” Rick Wagenvoort, managing director of the Association of Foundations in the Netherlands, agrees to this. “Rejecting applications is like a day job to a lot of foundations. It can be made so much easier for them, if non-profits take the time to make sure their application is a good match.” Tip 1: make sure you’re application is tailor-made to the foundation you’re sending it to.

Bummer 2: Withholding the (hired) fundraiser

Some nonprofits chose to hire a fundraiser to write applications. Because of a lack of time, capacity or specific expertise. Not every foundation is happy with this. “To some foundations it’s ‘not done’ to support those nonprofits,” says Luuk van Term, who used to be PR manager at the VSB Foundation. “They don’t want it, that a part of their money will be spent on the fundraiser.” At the Start Foundation, they think differently. Jos Verhoeven says: “It’s not that I don’t like it, that nonprofits hire fundraisers to do the job. I know that this is how it works. But please, don’t keep it back from us. If we’re interested in supporting your organization, and we start building a relationship, sooner or later we’ll find out anyway.” Tip 2: be honest about working with external fundraisers, and the financial agreements you make with them.

Bummer 3: Ignoring deadlines

Actually, this third bummer can be compared to the first one. It’s all about (not) reading the terms and conditions of the foundation you’re sending your application to. Did you know that one of the most important reasons to reject an application, is because the nonprofit sent it in too late? Tip 3: check the deadlines for sending in your application, and make sure you meet them.

Bummer 4: Unrealistic budgets

When I spoke with foundations about the budgets that are mentioned in applications, they thought they’re either too high or too low. Henk van Stokkom: “I sometimes chuckle about the applications we receive. For instance, some organizations send proposals to 35 foundations, in order to raise ‘only’ 30 thousand euros. Are they that insecure about receiving money for their projects?” Michel Nivard of Fonds1818: “In my experience, nonprofits sometimes ask for more money than they need. I think they do this on purpose, because they don’t expect to receive the total amount from us.” Luuk van Term thinks differently: “If it’s up to me, nonprofits often are too modest when asking for money. They tend to save on hourly rates of their staff, or suggest to buy secondhand computers in stead of new ones. Life is expensive these days, and foundations should know that.” Tip 4: be specific in what you need, and realistic in the costs you have to make to get it.

Bummer 5: ‘Show me the money!’

“Most fundraisers are focused on only one thing: getting our money,” says Henk Van Stokkom. Building up a personal relationship with foundations is very important, if it’s up to him. “What’s so difficult in picking up the phone and get in contact? Nonprofits often forget, that this is not only good in order to get to know each other a bit, but also to receive future gifts from a foundation.” Luuk van Term adds to this: “Foundations know each very well. When in personal contact with one, you can ask if your project matches the mission of another. I know for sure that a lot of foundations are willing to help.” Tip 5: put effort in friendraising, next to your (foundation) fundraising.

Bummer 6: ‘Say what?!’

Lots of applications tend to be long-winded and full of jargon. Most of the foundations I spoke with, mentioned this. The Dutch Skanfonds, stimulates nonprofits to ‘test’ the application text first. One of their ‘how to write a good proposal’ tips is: “Before sending your proposal to us, ask a colleague or friend to read it. Is it clear to them what you ask for, and is the proposal appealing to them?”. And I like to another tip to this. Tip 6: start your application with a summary in plain language

Bummer 7: Incomplete contact information

The last bummer, was a bit of a surprise for me. Did you know, that the contact info on applications often is incomplete? “The biggest bummer for me, is when an application is sent by, let’s say, prof. dr. A.B.C. Jones,” says Henk van Stokkom. “I mean, how vague can you get? Are you male or female, and what is your relation to the nonprofit? And then, when I try to find this out and call the person in question, it appears that he or she can only be reached on Mondays. If that’s the case, say so on your application!” Tip 7: add a – very detailed and easy to find – contact  information sheet to your application

Many thanks go out to the people who contributed to this blog: Rick Wagenvoort – managing director at FIN (the Association of Foundations in the Netherlands), Michel Nivard – project consultant at Fonds1818, Stefanie Gerwers – communications consultant at Skanfonds, Jos Verhoeven – managing director at Start Foundation, Luuk van Term – communications consultant at Termae Traiectum (and former PR manager at VSBfonds) and Henk van Stokkom – guide for foundations at VanStokkom. Also results of  ‘Giving in the Netherlands’ (Center for Philanthropic Studies at VU University Amsterdam) are used for this blog.

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