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To strengthen your institution’s fundraising efforts, focus on relationships

| Khalisa Jacobs

Thinking & Advocacy
March 2, 2023

Fundraising and grant writing may seem mysterious, but the key to unlocking a successful philanthropic effort is simple: building internal and external relationships. Great funding opportunities start with high-quality relationships. Keeping this at the forefront of your planning and execution will help your institution create compelling, persuasive, and meaningful funder proposals.

Identify a need

If your faculty or staff have already identified an academic program, facility improvement, system for infrastructure, student support, or other need at your college (that falls outside of your already stretched budget), you have the perfect seed to begin building the narrative for philanthropic support.

Prioritizing the institution’s needs is an important first step. The competition for philanthropic dollars can be intense. A specific request that demonstrates urgency and will provide both short- and long-term outcomes sets the stage for a strong funding request.

Other key components of a strong narrative include:

  • Connection to local or national trends
  • Demonstration of how you will advance your college’s strategic plan, vision, or goals
  • Why it matters to fix the issue with urgency
  • What you hope to achieve when you complete the programming or implementation
  • Illustrative examples

The sum total of these pieces helps the funder understand what their return on investment will be for your faculty, staff, students, or community at large.

The strength of your narrative comes from the relationship between administrator, academic, and student affairs teams. Without having strong relationships across your campus, it is very difficult to identify, prioritize, and articulate needs on your campus.

Identify data to support your request

Just stating your institution’s need will not be enough to convince others to fund your request. A qualitative illustration of your case can bring your student and faculty stories to life, and quantitative data can take it one step further. As you build your narrative for support you should be leveraging two forms of data: local or national data that can contextualize the challenge in your community and aggregated student-level data that will support your implementation effort. Building out the latter data set based on a theory of change or logic model will help ensure that the metrics you use to evaluate your programming are relevant and support the change you plan to make.

Funders typically seek two types of evaluation metrics: output (e.g., add three new classes to the English course selection) and outcome (e.g., increase percentage of veterans graduating and advancing into health care jobs by 5 percent). Internal relationship-building between the teams or individuals on your campus who have data fluency will strengthen your college’s funding conversations.

Connect with funders

You’ve built the case for support, you have supporting data, and now you’re ready to connect with the funders to introduce your concept. If you are fortunate enough to have a fundraising team or foundation on your campus, you have a head start on building relationships with funders.

But all is not lost if your college does not have a development office. There are still a number of ways that your institution can engage with funders:

  1. Seek out open calls for proposals. Although rare, some national, regional, and family foundations accept letters of inquiry through their foundation website. Be sure to follow the instructions and deadlines outlined by the funder.
  2. Most funders have strategic plans that match to their funding efforts. These plans can often be found on funder’s website, and you can often find program officers at conferences and events. If you have a unique and powerful story to tell about your campus, share it with funders as you meet them. Your campus story may help them illustrate real-world applications of their grantee portfolio.
  3. Your local community foundation may provide professional development opportunities around grant making and fundraising. They may also host events that other funders attend. Keep an eye on your local and regional funder scene for these types of activities.
  4. Bring partners from the community into your grant asks to make a powerful statement to funders about your willingness to expand your college’s reach. Working on cross-community efforts can open the door to potential new funding partners.

If you are looking for funding opportunities and you aren’t sure where to start, look to your relationships. Foster strong internal connections at your institution or external relationships with funders — and then tap into these relationships to articulate a need, determine metrics for success, and seek out promising opportunities. Make it a community effort rather than a solo endeavor by getting others invested in your ideal outcome. These connections, and the unique perspectives and insights that come from them, will strengthen your fundraising or grant request, setting it apart from others and ultimately benefiting your institution and the students you serve.

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