One particular audience question garnered lots of great tips: "When I make my very first approach to a foundation, via phone call or email, what information should I have at the ready?" Your first impression on a foundation is important, as it sets the precedent for how the funder will view your organization in the future, and it can determine whether the funder asks you to submit a formal proposal. Based on our panelists' discussion, here are some things with which you should arm yourself when the time comes:
The elevator pitch. Who are you and what do you do? What is this organization all about? Make sure that you have can articulate the answers to these questions quickly, clearly, and engagingly at a moment's notice. You should have a listener-friendly version of your organization's mission and vision ready to go, in as few words as reasonably possible. This is what is commonly known as the "elevator pitch." If you don't have one already, here's a guide to creating one.
Who are you reaching and how many are you reaching? Assuming that you make it past the elevator pitch stage, get ready to talk about outreach. What communities do you serve? Who is your audience and how large is your audience? A funder might hesitate if your visitors/audiences mostly consist of friends of the artists. If you can indicate that your organization attracts a broader audience and operates as a part of a community rather than simply being situated within that community, you are more likely to catch the funder's attention. Also consider audience education and engagement. How are people impacted by visiting your exhibits or performances? Do they tell their friends about their experience, and do they come back for repeat visits? Some of this information ties into the measurement of impact and outcomes; you can learn more about that topic through our Tools and Resources for Assessing Social Impact.
How are you helping the field as a whole? Is your arts organization only looking out for its own benefit, or is it helping to strengthen the broader field? This type of question can refer to a variety of things. How well do you treat your artists or performers? Does your organization provide an outlet for types of art or artists that need a bigger voice? Is your organization doing something innovative? Do you see the other arts organizations in your field as competitors, or as partners? Are you bringing art to audiences that might not otherwise experience it? To have an answer to any of these sorts of questions is to think beyond your organization's immediate needs and consider whether the field is a better place when your organization exists.
Budget and funding information. If the funder likes your mission and your outreach, next you might be asked about your finances. You should be prepared to discuss the size of your budget and how your revenue and expenses are shaping up. The funder is going to be interested in how the organization currently gets its funding, and specifically the diversity of its funding. Be sure that you have some knowledge as to how much of your budget is comprised of private funding (donations and grants), and how much comes from earned income, such as ticket sales. A solid diversity of funding streams makes your organization look more financially responsible, and is more likely to garner interest from a potential funder.
What's your season/schedule like? If your conversation has been going well thus far, the program officer might begin to consider a visit. Be ready to discuss some good exhibits, performances, or other relevant events that let the funder see your work in action, and send along a program or catalog.
Other important tips:
Read the web site before calling! Yes, it can give you an edge to contact a funder before formally approaching them for funding, but your phone call or email should be an informed one. While it's fine to ask questions, foundation staff may be weary of answering a question that is easily answered by a quick perusal of the funder's web site. Before making any contact, check to see whether the foundation has a web site, and if so, spend roughly 20 minutes reading through any background information and application details before you pick up the phone. This way, you will sound like you did your homework when you speak with a staff member, and any queries you make will be substantial ones. Remember that program officers have busy schedules, and while they will be happy to speak with you, they would rather not waste valuable time rehashing the basic information about their foundation.
"Find the Yenta." Our panelists used this expression to refer to finding the person who is willing to offer insight and connections to help your nonprofit obtain the funding it needs. It's terrific if you contact a funder and they express interest in providing a grant, but it's particularly valuable if you connect with a foundation staff member who can provide good advice on how you can strengthen your case for support, or put you in touch with staff from other funders who may also be willing to support your organization. Building a relationship with someone who is receptive to your organization's needs and willing to go the extra mile for you is just as beneficial as receiving a grant.
If you would like to learn more about securing foundation funding for arts organizations, many resources are available on the Foundation Center's special focus page, Focus on Funding for the Arts; highlights include a map of foundation funding for the arts in 25 of the largest U.S. metropolitan areas, and a recording of our webinar from last fall, "Arts Funding in Uncertain Times". Stay tuned for more programming for arts groups as Funding for Arts Month continues.