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December 3, 2021
Make Your Best Impression at Meetings With Funders
By Martin Teitel

Thank you book by Teitel (72 x 111)
A meeting between funder and applicant can provide critical insight and strengthen a connection. To make a shining impression of your organization, ask the right questions, bring strong materials, and respect the power dynamic.

After giving your application an initial read, a funder may call to set up a meeting, especially if your organization, program, or leadership is unknown to the funder.

The only possible answer is “yes.” But you don’t want to simply book the date and time. If it’s possible, stay on the phone a bit longer to ask these questions:
  • What’s the purpose of the meeting? This might seem obvious, but it is vitally important to find out what the funder wants to know. The caller might respond that she wants to have a general conversation about your proposal, but she might have a more specific reason—such as reviewing your project budget—and you want to be prepared.

  • Who should come to the meeting? If you represent a small organization, you might want to bring a board member or a person from your community. Usually a huge delegation is a bad idea, but sometimes more than one person can strengthen your hand. It’s all right to ask but not to push.

A week before the meeting, send a confirming message to the funder. This message should do more than cement the date and time. Recently, I received a perfect email from an applicant, whom I had invited for a meeting. She reconfirmed the date and time, mentioned the names and titles of the attendees from her organization, listed the topics they hoped to discuss, and politely invited us to mention any other concerns we’d like addressed.

Her message created the meeting’s agenda, and she did a good job of maintaining control of the gathering without making me feel overpowered.

Don’t Go Empty-handed

So the date arrives and there you are in the foundation’s waiting room. What is in your hand? There is only one correct answer: something to hand the funder that she hasn’t seen before (not another proposal, unless that is the stated purpose of the meeting).
What will suffice is a literature packet in a nice folder, such as newsletters and other publications about your programs. Just don’t show up empty-handed—that is poor sales behavior.

Be conservative about bearing gifts. Most of us in foundations feel a bit uncomfortable about this. If you are a local group that has t-shirts and caps, it might be okay to bring those, as would something produced through your organization’s programs, such as a local cookbook.

Realize that you are in the funder’s offices for two reasons. First, you want to give the foundation staff an opportunity to look you over. You want them to see that you’re competent, that you know your stuff. You put a face on the verbiage, a voice to the issue.

Second, you’re there to provide information to help the program officer and distribution committee when they are figuring out whether to take on your proposal, or, later in the game, to help the staff person or distribution committee answer the board’s questions about your proposal.

The Power Dynamic

After sitting down and exchanging the usual pleasantries, always begin with the same question: “Do you have some things you’d like to cover about our proposal, or would you like me to start with a few brief remarks about our work?”

There is a power dynamic here, and this question handles it. You take the initiative in framing the meeting in terms of the funder’s needs, not yours. If you talk on and on before the funder gets to ask his list of questions, you might have to walk out the door having missed a great opportunity to fill in the blanks and correct misconceptions.

Therefore, your first task is to set up the agenda in terms of the funder’s needs, because that person’s needs are what count in this meeting. If the foundation staff person doesn’t begin with questions, then you should give a presentation consisting of three things:

  • Give a brief summary of your proposal, kind of a verbal LOI. There might be someone in the room who hasn’t read your proposal, and in any event you want to refresh the memory of those who may have read 12 other proposals that morning. You must be fluent in all the details of the proposal.

  • Describe any aspect that is new. Explain that you’re updating the proposal since it was sent in and offer to send this information in writing. Unless you are meeting the day after the proposal arrived in the foundation’s offices, you should always include an update. Everyone likes to feel they have the most current information.

  • Offer to discuss or clarify any points in the proposed project that the funder is interested in. You are gently working here to elicit what the funder feels is weak or controversial about your proposal. You’re looking to provide answers, but you aren’t there to hold a debate.

Do not ask if the funder likes or favors your proposal or if he or she is going to recommend it. When people feel pushed, they tend to push back, which is just the dynamic you want to avoid. Assume your proposal has some life for that staff person. Why else would you be in their office at the moment?

Once you’ve said your goodbyes, go over your notes carefully. When you send a thank-you note or email—which you should always do—recap the to-do list you took away from the meeting. For example, you might write, “Thank you for seeing us last Tuesday. We are going to be sending you the revised budget and a copy of our strategic plan, as we discussed, by the end of this week.”

This article is adapted from Martin Teitel’s book, “Thank You for Submitting Your Proposal: A Foundation Director Reveals What Happens Next,” published by Emerson & Church.

December 2010
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