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Sweaty Palms: Surviving In-Person Meetings with Foundations

I am a great believer in shoe-leather philanthropy. People in the granting field can learn so much more by leaving the abstract world of proposals and meeting the people who are seeking funds. And for me, anyway, meeting grantees is the most fun a grantmaker can have.

While it's perfectly possible to receive a grant without ever meeting the funder, and many grantees would be happy not to endure the stress and possibly tricky questions emanating from an in-person conversation, there are good reasons to have that meeting.

First of all, some funders really can't get comfortable with a new grantee or a new idea until they've interacted beyond the piles of paper. Basically, all you need to do in a meeting is explain yourself. And you should thank your lucky stars you have a chance to do so, instead of the funder's tossing your proposal into the dreaded tall pile.

Second, there are some ideas and some pieces of nonprofit work that really have to be seen to be appreciated. Funders and grantseekers don't always agree on which projects those might be, and we'll get to that point a little later.

And finally, some grantmakers are required to meet people they fund, so you really won't have a choice.

Whether the funder meeting is at your place or theirs, there are a few basics to start with—some of which might seem painfully obvious. But my long experience demonstrates that some people need to be, well, reminded.

If you want to meet with a funder, here is Rule #1: Do. Not. Ever. Call. The. Funder. At. Home. If this seems rudimentary to you, my all-time record for outrageous, manners-impaired behavior is held by the man who called me at home at 7 a.m.—on Thanksgiving morning.

He was in town, kind of bored visiting his parents I think, and wanted to know if he could come over. I admit this is rather extreme, but over the years a number of grantees have felt welcome to contact me at home, and a few have showed up on my front porch.

I've thought and thought about this, and I'm just not able to come up with any reason for a person to ever penetrate the professional-personal barrier uninvited.

The second painfully obvious rule is about something that happens all the time. Don't give the funder short notice (15 minutes or even a week) that you want a meeting. Leaving aside my internal book of manners, it is simply impractical to expect a busy person to find meeting time on limited notice.

This is one that happens to me at least monthly: I get a call from someone who says he's "in town," and can he come by. Usually, my answer is no, even if it's someone I want to meet. Think about it—do I want to hand over tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to someone who demonstrates that he's not able to manage a simple calendar?

I'm going to leave the rest of the elementary rules for you to figure out for yourself, such as don't show up without an appointment, don't arrive late, and don't venture to the offices of a foundation in a high-rise in New York in torn jeans and a T-shirt (none of these examples are made up). In general, what this comes down to is, make a shining impression of your organization and you'll be just fine.

Now let's look more closely at the dynamics of visiting funders in their offices.

It may well happen that one of the foundations you've applied to will contact you, asking you to come in for a meeting. The only possible answer to this, unless you're holding a winning lottery ticket when the call arrives, is yes.

You might be slightly flustered—after all, thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars could be at stake. So here is your checklist of issues to try to raise—you don't want to simply book the date and time, if it's possible to stay on the phone a bit longer.

You should ask, what's the purpose of the meeting? This might seem obvious, but finding out what the funder wants to know is vitally important. The response might be that she wants to have a general conversation about your proposal, but she might have something more specific in mind, like going over your budget, and it would be nice to be prepared.

Your second question is, who should come to the meeting? Again it might be obvious, they are calling you. But if you're in a small organization, you might want to bring a board member or a person from your community. Or on the other end of the scale, if yours is a big group that works in a technical area or in science, you might want to bring along a staff scientist or other expert. Usually a huge delegation is a bad idea, but sometimes more than one person can strengthen your hand.

I have met with some volunteers, board chairs, and community people over the years that have really impressed, and sometimes moved me. It doesn't hurt to ask about including others, if the funder isn't far away or if your bank account can deal with a bit of travel. Once the meeting has been set up, confirm it a week in advance. Recently, I received an e-mail from a grantee, who at my invitation was coming from another state. She reconfirmed the date and time, mentioned who was coming, listed the things they hoped to discuss, and politely invited us (there were two people from my foundation in the meeting) to mention any other concerns we'd like addressed.

This is perfect. Her e-mail created the meeting's agenda, and the grantee did a good job of maintaining control of the gathering without making me feel overpowered.

OK, so the time comes and there you are in the foundation waiting room. What is in your hand? And, no, I don't mean a briefcase. The only correct answer is, something to hand the funder that she hasn't seen before.

Not another proposal, unless that is the stated purpose of the meeting. And be wary of gifts—most of us in foundations feel a bit uncomfortable picturing the perp walk when we're indicted for taking bribes. (If you are a local group that has T-shirts and caps, that might be OK, or perhaps a cookbook your organization has produced.)

Especially if this is a first meeting, keep the geegaws to a minimum. What will suffice is a literature packet in a nice folder—maybe some newsletters and other publications. Please, just don't show up empty-handed. It is poor sales behavior to do that.

In some respects this meeting is a dress rehearsal for the board meeting: in this case you're playing the part of the staff person and the staff person is the board member, asking those probing questions.

It isn't easy to generalize about meetings with funders because the ones I've been in (from both sides of the transaction) vary. But some aspects of the meeting are fairly common. 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 for the staff person to use in figuring out if they want to take your proposal on—or later in the game, how they might handle your proposal in their board meeting.

When you sit down in the funder's conference room or office, and exchange the usual pleasantries that we use to start the social engine, 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.

First, give a brief summary of your proposal, kind of a verbal LOI (letter of intent). 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. And based on my experience, let me remind you that you must be fluent in all the details of the proposal.

Second, describe anything that is new. Explain that you're updating the proposal since it was sent in, and offer to send this information in writing or even—please forgive me for saying this—rewrite the proposal. 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.

Third, 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.

It isn't advisable to ask if the funder likes or favors your proposal, or if they're 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 had the meeting and said your goodbyes, go over your notes carefully. When you send your thank you note for the meeting—which in all instances you should do—it's also fine to recap the to-do list you took away from the meeting. So you might say, "Thanks 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."

While debates rage in the manners columns of daily newspapers, in my opinion, thank yous sent by e-mail are fine.

Site Visits

More rarely, the funder will come to see you. It's too bad site visits are so infrequent, because funders learn best out of our offices. When you get that call or e-mail announcing a visit, don't panic. Follow the suggestions above—try to pinpoint who is coming, what they want to get out of the meeting, and who in your organization they want to meet with. 

Yes, do discard that stack of empty pizza boxes, but don't stress your staff with your nervousness or make them all dress as if they're going to a high school prom. Confirm the meeting and your expectations in advance, and once again, be ready with that packet to hand to the funder as part of your greeting.

If as is sometimes the case a meal is involved, you might be asked to suggest a local restaurant. Be prepared with a few choices, which you can describe in diplomatic terms, like, "There's a good basic local seafood place two blocks away, and an Italian place around the corner that has white tablecloths at lunch."

Most people who are picking up the tab appreciate having the price range flagged in advance. And speaking of the tab, I know that some of my esteemed colleagues operate with different standards than I do, but in most cases, it is always the putative funder who pays. You might offer to pick up the check if you feel that's called for, but don't insist.

Also, be cautious about who comes to the meal. I was once at an organization's office in New York City and mentioned it was lunchtime. The two people in the meeting with me said great, and promptly invited all the other employees, 17 of them, to join us.

Leaving aside what that meal did to my budget, I didn't get any actual work done during the confusing and raucous meal ... to the group's detriment.

Assuming your organization runs programs or services, most funders will want to see what they might be funding in action. Over the years, I've met cowboy poets, participated in street demonstrations, cooked meals for homeless people, and collated mailings with volunteers.

One of the great blessings of my work has been meeting the people who dedicate their lives to helping others, often around their kitchen tables or in shabby walk-up offices.

One big mistake grantseekers make—often because they've failed to do their homework to find out who is visiting them—is to mute the power and passion of their work. There's no doubt that taking a funder into the community means you can't control what happens. Someone may say something embarrassing. But we're adults and we can handle the unexpected.

I know that time and again I've fallen in love with groups because they let me meet their community people, volunteers, or those whom they serve. If you happen to meet the rare funder who will give you more than an hour and is interested in the realities of your work, take the risk and let your program shine.

In closing, let me suggest two ideas to help you induce funders to meet with you. I regret I don't have more.

First, make the offer to come by and meet the funder, or invite her to visit with your organization. Do this even if you don't want to, or you don't think the funder will accept.

A polite invitation can't hurt, most especially in the context of acknowledging a letter from a funder that says that your Letter of Inquiry has been accepted and you're being invited to submit a full proposal. Just make sure your invitation for a visit is clear and brief. And only send one.

The second technique that has worked with me is to illustrate what a site visit might look like. In these days of $99 color printers, you can easily produce a letter showing the smiling faces of your volunteers or the beautiful setting around your program's field office, or the faces of the people who benefit from your group's efforts. A few times when I have been wavering about seeing people, framing this picture in my mind has helped to tip the balance in the grantee's favor. It can't hurt.

While there are the occasional difficult people seeking grants, I've found over the years of working as a grantmaker that the people asking us for support are inspiring, enjoyable folks who in many ways are motivated by an idealism that I share.

Busy funders, including me, are often difficult to meet with, yet the overwhelming majority of grantseekers are interesting and engaging people who should put their strongest asset forward: yourselves.

Martin Teitel
© 2006. Excerpted from "Thank You for Submitting Your Proposal": A Foundation Director Reveals What Happens Next. Excerpted with permission of Emerson & Church, Publishers.

Martin Teitel is executive director of the Cedar Tree Foundation, a private foundation headquartered in Boston. Previously he served as senior fellow and executive director of the CS Fund, a philanthropic foundation, and also Western field director for a public charity, The Youth Project.

Topics: Fundraising