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Want Foundations to Fund Your Work? Speak Their Language. Here's How.

Foundations are always searching for worthy causes and nonprofits to support. Get yours ready for their vetting with these 7 best practices.

Eric Ressler
December 15, 2021
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Foundations are perpetually assessing potential nonprofits to fund, whether through a purposeful online search or a casual networking conversation. If you want to inspire any foundation to give, you need to put your organization’s best foot forward — everytime, everywhere.

But how? To secure the trust and backing of foundations, you need to learn how to speak their language. Follow these best practices and you’ll be fluent (and funded!) in no time.

Make Your Nonprofit’s Financial Footing Transparent

It should come as no surprise that foundations will look for your financial details if they’re considering supporting you. Making it easy for them to see that you’re responsible with your budget and transparent in your spending can put you on their shortlist.

Hone in on your financial fine print by making sure these details are updated and easy to find.

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    Charity watchdog websites. Guide Star, Charity Navigator, and Candid are resources that lend insight and peace of mind for those who are looking to donate to your organization. They each give a rating for your organization based on criteria like updated Form 990s and other financial information that you can control by submitting information.

    Unfortunately, these sites rarely tell the whole picture. They can’t convey your true impact, your messaging, or what you’re really doing to create change. Still, you should make sure that your profiles on each of these sites are updated and accurate.

    Your best bet is to include a prominent link to your website on your organization’s profile, thereby giving them access to the whole picture.

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    IRS’s and Propublica’s websites. If you’ve been doing your due diligence with taxes, you should be in the clear. To be extra sure, check the IRS’s and Propublica’s websites for publicly available information about your tax filings.

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    Your ‘About Us’ page. Your website is the best place to lay out all relevant financial information. This should include: Links to past years’ Form 990s, messaging around team culture and pay equity, a statement about how your organization views overhead percentage, and details about the financial systems you have in place to make sure donations are used swiftly and to their full advantage.

This is your chance to be as transparent as possible. If you’re currently being audited, say so. If you value accountability and responsibility, talk about it. Let your ‘About Us’ page be a story of transparency and trust.

Amplify Your Nonprofit’s Annual Report Through Storytelling

Each year, your social impact organization creates an annual report to document the previous year’s accomplishments. Don't let your annual report be a dull collection of facts and figures. Instead, feed two birds with one scone by producing a compelling, story-driven report that satisfies your board and serves as compelling content for foundations interested in learning more about you.

Of course, your annual report should spell out the financial story of the last year, but it can also tell your impact story. This type of content doesn’t just serve to bolster your report but also serves as a viral-worthy piece of content that drives donors of all kinds to open their wallets.

Aside from your financial reporting and impact story, be sure to include a message from your board chair endorsing your work. The board chair’s stamp of approval, and any board members’ testimonial, will tell foundations you have an active board that can vouch for your fiscal responsibility.

If you’re still analog and print your annual report, make sure you have a digital copy in PDF format available on your website so it’s accessible to everyone.

Create Captivating Content to Compel Foundations (and Other Donors, Too)

Foundations aren’t only interested in numbers. They’re also interested in stories — your story. Luckily, there are so many ways to tell it. Clue foundations into who you are and what you’re all about by producing interesting, inspirational, and informative content.

To start, take a hard look at the content you’re already creating. How much of it informs, educates, and inspires? One, if not all, of those intentions should be evident in every story, picture gallery, or video you share on your website, through email, and across social media channels.

It’s not enough just to create the scroll-stopping content your supporters are looking for. You have to establish a cadence for producing and publishing it, too. If you don’t keep up a predictable publishing schedule, it could signal to a foundation that you struggle to manage resources effectively.

As you produce content on an ongoing basis, be sure you’re sharing it at every digital touchpoint available to you — on your social media channels, through your emails, and on your website. For the pieces you share on Twitter, Facebook, or in email, provide a link to your website so foundations and other potential donors can go discover more about you.

Use Your Social Media Channels Wisely

Though your social media channels shouldn’t be the only way you communicate your message and galvanize supporters, those platforms are indispensable tools. You should put thoughtful time and effort into building and maintaining them.

On your website, make it clear which social channels you’re active on. If you’ve been neglecting any of your channels, decide which ones make the most sense to keep based on the demographics of your followers. (Ask any Gen Z’er, and they’ll say Facebook is for their parents.) Just as you use an editorial calendar to manage content production, you should use a social media calendar to manage your social media activities.

Active social media channels not only prove you’re digitally savvy, but they also show you care about the community rallying behind your cause. And it’s not just about posting. Thoughtfully replying to people’s questions and engaging with comments show that it’s not an A.I. robot powering your nonprofit’s tweets and Facebook posts — and that matters for building trust.

So, too, does the quality of content you’re sharing. Do you include a variety of formats to tell stories? For example, videos, pictures, infographics, and statistics.

You never know if you’re being assessed by foundations looking for their next beneficiary. Nor do you know exactly when you’re garnering new supporters or there’s an opportunity to apply for a grant. Keeping your social channels in tip-top shape ensures your first (social) impression is a positively memorable one.

6 Details to Pay Attention to on Your Nonprofit’s Website

Your organization’s website is a stamp of credibility — or, at least, it should be. It’s where your story lives as well as all the details that come with it.

Because foundations scrutinize your website like a resume, leave no stone unturned when it comes to providing accurate, updated information. To score points with any potential foundation, double-check you have these details:

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    Simple stuff. Perform an audit of your website for out-of-date information, like old staff members who no longer work for you, outdated programs you’ve retired, and past events that have come and gone. And then do a check for the smaller details, like checking your copyright date is updated at the bottom of your page.

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    Board members. Your board members are your organization’s biggest and most public advocates. Because of that, you should not only show your appreciation for them but use them to your advantage. Include each board member’s name, picture, relevant professional information, and length of time served on the board. All of this goes to show your board is active, engaged, and carrying out your nonprofit’s mission.

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    Committee structure. If your organization has committees or other leadership structures, communicate that! Craft messaging that shows how you are fostering the next generation of leadership in your organization and what it means for the long haul. In doing so, you’re proving you have an eye toward the future and, ultimately, a sustainable organization.

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    Partner organizations and other foundational support. Get by with a little help from your friends. List out any affiliations you have with synergistic organizations. What have you done together, and what did your impact look like? Funders will want to know if there are any strings attached, so be clear in what your partnerships mean and how they work. Also, if you receive funding from any other foundation(s), go ahead and list them. That can serve as social proof. Foundations will often look to see who else supports an organization as a way to bolster their trust.

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    Clear calls to action. Make your calls to action and donation page clear and easy to find. It’s really as simple as that. It doesn’t matter if it’s a casual browser or a serious foundation, if your would-be donors can’t figure out how to give you money or support your cause, you’ve lost.

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    Quality images. A picture says a thousand words. Are you sure your pictures are saying what you want them to? Only use your most crisp, clean, and vibrant images. Review your portfolio of images and remove any that are low-quality or low-resolution. Finally, make sure none of them are exploitative in nature. For example, you’ll want to get rid of any images that perpetuate the “white savior” myth.

Talk About Your Nonprofit’s Momentum So Far — and Your Plan to Take it Further

Foundations want to make sure their gifts are catalysts for good. Show them how far their gift would go (and that they can trust you’re responsible) by telling stories about how far donations have pushed your mission so far. You can do this in different ways.

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    Talk about your diversified revenue streams and supporters. A robust and diversified revenue stream is music to a foundation’s ears. From your small dollar donors to your membership program to your grants, show how you’re diversifying your revenue. Foundations and large-dollar donors are more inclined to support an organization if it already boasts a bunch of supporters (including recurring donors), especially advocacy and grassroots organizations. It shows a promising ROI.

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    Impact stories. Foundations want to know if you have gained any traction in the fight for your cause. That’s where it helps to tell a convincing, inspirational impact story. Impact stories talk about who or what you helped and how. It’s a feel-good story that pulls back the curtain to show how the magic happened.

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    Theory of change. Your theory of change is a statement that’s unique to your organization. It spells out what you’re all about, why you’re fighting for change, how you’re doing the work, and what you plan to achieve in the future. And? It’s short, sweet, and simple to understand. Foundations can get a good feel for your organization — whether or not you’re proven in your methods and how likely you are to make an impact moving forward — just by reading your theory of change.

Your Nonprofit’s Messaging and Modern Website Matter

Foundations don’t want to give money to organizations with whom they aren’t proud to be connected. Foster a heavy dose of pride in your potential foundation partners by making sure your brand, messaging, and website are all on point. Each one matters, so you’ve got to pay attention to all three.

Your website should be modern and cohesive with your branding and messaging. If not, it only hinders your organization’s credibility. And foundations are sure to notice.

Your messaging should likewise be clear and consistent across all channels, whether it’s your website’s action center, About Us page, or in your latest email send. This should extend to the messaging you use on your social media channels, fundraising campaigns, and in-person events.

If you’ve struggled to make the case for a branding and website budget, know that some foundations offer grants exclusively for this important work. Forward-thinking foundations know the value of strong branding and messaging. They understand that your brand and digital presence are central to the success of your mission.

All the more reason to do all you can to attract the funders who want to see your mission succeed.

Participate in the Larger Conversation of Your Nonprofit’s Cause

Your organization’s area of focus may be niche, but that doesn’t mean you don’t fit into a broader conversation. So find the bigger picture and make your voice heard. Doing so will show you understand the wider context, have insightful ideas and opinions to add, and are engaged with other leading voices in the social impact space. All of that makes your organization more attractive to the foundations you hope to attract.

Who knows? Maybe your catalytic thought leadership article or Podcast makes it to philanthropists like MacKenzie Scott.

Your organization doesn’t have to be perfect to earn the attention and support of foundations. But in order to give yourself the best shot at a game-changing donation, you need to go out of your way to prove your worth. Woo foundations at every opportunity — and watch your nonprofit’s footprint grow.

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