This article first appeared in Pro Bono News.

With conferences and workshops back in the calendars, following a period of increased need from the for-purpose sector, it is unfortunate to hear stories from funders that can only be described as lacklustre relationship management. 

At a recent coffee catch up with the CEO of Gandel Foundation, Vedran Drakulic OAM, I was taken by his analogy, comparing good grant relationships to good friendships: “The best way to ensure a good relationship is to treat your funding partners as you would your friends. In our lives we would all have those good friends that are always in touch, and those lousy friends who only call when they need something. If you want to be a good fundraiser, a good grant partner and have a strong relationship — don’t be that lousy friend…” 

Other recent conversations like this have shown that many major gift and grant beneficiaries are not implementing best practice when it comes to relationship building and management, let alone stewardship and outcomes reporting. 

At the recent Fundraising & Philanthropy Big4 Fundraising Conference, I hosted a panel discussion with Lisa Grinham, CEO of St. George Foundation, Bank of Melbourne Foundation and BankSA Foundation, Lea-Anne Bradley, CEO of The John Villiers Trust, and Julia Steele Scott, CEO of Grant Toolbox and JM Philanthropy entitled What Philanthropists and Grant Makers are Looking For — Best Practice Engagement and Stewardship.

During that discussion, one of the best examples of bad practice was shared by Grinham, who shared: “We received an application for one of our major grants from a well-known organisation that our Foundations had never partnered with. 

“The organisation included a list of potential collaborative funding partners they were in active discussion with. As I knew two of them, I gave them a call. 

“One of the grant-makers said they had never spoken with the organisation, and the other said whilst they knew of them, they were not in any discussion re funding the project, indicating very poor communications and stewardship by the beneficiary. 

“Needless to say, we did not progress this application.”  

Funders also say that it is not uncommon for them to hear about significant organisational changes through a third party, and not from the beneficiary directly. 

As Drakulic said, “We want to hear from our partners, not through third parties. Keep us in the loop, keep us informed. Whether it be successes, challenges, board changes, staff changes. 

“As a major stakeholder to your organisation’s work, we want to hear direct from you what’s going on, not find out in the media. One of the golden rules is ‘no surprises’.” 

Of course, all funders have different requirements according to their structure, size, and resourcing, but the evidence is strong for exceeding your funders’ expectations. 

Go above and beyond, without delivering irrelevant information or communicating when they have specifically asked for none.

It is important to become familiar with your donors and the level of communication they want to achieve. 

As Denise Cheng, Equity Trustees’ relationship manager, active philanthropy, pointed out in her presentation at the Big 4 Conference, there is a huge difference between a meaningful relationship and one that is purely transactional. 

Acknowledging that the sector is stretched and that it can be difficult to tailor a journey for each donor, she noted that there are a few things that organisations can do to really improve a donor’s experience.

“We always invite organisations to share events, newsletters, and updates with us — as these are things we will share with the donor. 

“And for those funders that hold open grant rounds, stewardship is key before you even write and submit your application. The application is usually the last phase of the ‘dating’ process.”

Finally, don’t forget to do your research. “Find out what is meaningful for the donor,” Cheng shared.

“It might be as simple as a handwritten note, a video update, or a coffee catch-up.”

So, whose role is it to ensure your organisation is practicing optimal stewardship?  

There should not be one person to manage all your relationships. But certainly, one person needs to be coordinating all the communications to ensure that the right person is having the right conversation with each major donor at the most appropriate and relevant times. And of course, it is critical to keep an enduring record of all those relationships and reporting requirements.  

Of the recent events I’ve attended, and of all the conversations I’ve had with funders, all have been grounded by the key themes of trust, outcomes, and productive communications. 

More than ever, now is the time to ask, how can we show that what we do works? This is where a robust monitoring and evaluation program is essential. 

Cheng, quoting consultancy firm Think Impact, further emphasises that organisations sharing their impact narrative should share no data without stories, and no stories without data.

The consensus amongst funders is that beneficiaries of repeat and long-term partnerships and grants are those who provide engaged and robust outcome and impact reporting. 

Strategic Grants’ evidence from clients with the highest success rates certainly endorses this.  

Strong, communicative, and respectful relationships are the cornerstone to so many aspects of life and the for-purpose sector, and funder management is no different. Your donors are, quite literally, invested in your success and they want to celebrate your wins and support you in your challenges. 

By leveraging your monitoring and reporting, using both data and stories, you can become a fantastic steward who enjoys ongoing, successful funder relationships. 

Don’t be a lousy friend — check in with your donors regularly, not just when you need something. 

At Strategic Grants, we have developed a suite of new products for our clients, designed to assist them to deliver tailored, robust, user-friendly monitoring and evaluation programs, for organisations to measure success and demonstrate impact to funders. Get in touch to find out more.

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