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Building Authentic Funder Relationships

Filed in Relationship Advancement — May 22, 2024

In our blog we’ve pulled back the veil on our approach and methodologies through a largely ‘plug and play’ resources and Masterclasses so you can skillfully engage the funding partners your mission deserves.

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Too many nonprofit leaders feel frustrated and burned out, grappling with an unjust philanthropic system that seems closed off to people without access to insider information and connections. We get it, we have been there, and we work with clients everyday who strive to be ‘seen’ by funders for the uniqueness they bring to the table. 

In our Fundraising Masterclass, “Building Authentic Funder Relationships & Maximizing Opportunities for Funding”, held during Catalyzing Change Week 2024, Black Fox Global team members Lisa Heinert, Melizsa Mugyenyi and Jen Skala Bodio explored ways to build authentic funder relationships through professional persistence. 

Building on this strategic fundraising approach and the parallel importance of funder outreach and messaging, the team also shared tried and true strategies to ensure how you can be ‘grant ready’ when you do secure invitations to submit proposals and Letters of Inquiry (LOI). 

This blog post is the first in a two-part series following this Masterclass. The session recording can be accessed on Catalyst 2030’s YouTube page here, and the slide deck is available here

Building Authentic Funder Relationships

In fundraising, doors for funding opportunities often need to be respectfully opened by non profit leaders. At Black Fox Global, we deploy and advise our Advancement Outreach clients to use what we call ‘professional persistence’. 

To us, professional persistence in fundraising is having a clearly defined and informed goal, while persisting with an outreach strategy that centers on clarity of purpose, strategic intention, authenticity, and finesse. It also means that we don’t advocate persisting for the sake of it, but in a manner that embodies organizational and individual values, and tactfully so.

We have broken down professional persistence into three stages:

Stage 1: Pre Engagement

In this stage, we focus on the why, the what, and the who. We begin with Uncovering Deeply Aligned Funders, a research-focused exercise to find the right funding prospects, based on mission, geographical, and eligibility alignment. It is also important to choose funders based on evidence of alignment. Have they funded missions like yours in the past? Where have their recent resources been deployed? Once funder candidates have been identified, it is important to set eyes on the ideal outcomes. With the ultimate goal being to unlock resources, it is important to set intermediate milestone targets.

Once funding prospects have been identified, we can now look ahead to determining access points and gauging proximity. The warmer we can get an introduction, the more directly it will work in our favor. Can we find a connection through our board members or a current funder? Maybe a peer organization will be willing to make an introduction? 

In the absence of a warm introduction, don’t get disheartened, simply find ways to be in the rooms these identified funder prospects are occupying. Is there a convening you can attend that will create an opportunity for an in person meeting? Or, can you reach out for a learning conversation with an influencer or decision maker, to get more in-depth insights on how and what they fund? Do not underestimate the power of ‘cold’ emails or linkedin messages! When done effectively, built on known alignment and strong messaging, this direct outreach is strategic and intentional and can be effective in securing funder meetings and initially building funder relationships. 

In tandem to this, it is also necessary to think about who in your organization will be the ‘face of outreach’. Yes, it can be the CEO or Development Director, but based on your research on the funder, it could also be a Program Director or your Research Director. Consider, too, the intricacies of the program you’re hoping to get funded. Who is going to be rolling up their sleeves to get the implementation work done? Is this person better placed to do the outreach with the funder than say, the CEO?

Stage 2: Engagement 

Having now identified deeply aligned funders and an initial strategy for outreach, we now go into the heart of engaging donors and building authentic relationships. Determining details on how to engage, figuring out outreach tactics, and planning the cadence of outreach are all in focus now. Tactics should ideally leverage existing organizational infrastructure and assets. 

It is also important to be in tune with the funder prospect’s news and developments. Tactically, this could mean setting up Google alerts for the funding organization and/or key contacts, following them on LinkedIn, and/or signing up for their newsletter, among others. On a deeper level, this is being aware of what matters to them, in real time. What op-eds have they published? What grantees are they spotlighting? In what ways are they contributing to sector thought leadership? 

Once initial outreach has happened, the cadence of follow up will be determined by you, what you know about the funder, and what you have to offer in your follow up outreach. We often recommend clients start with a two-week cycle, sending a check in email every couple of weeks, and then adjusting to every 2-3 months. 

Each touchpoint should show an honest attempt at connecting with the funder as a human being. This can be done by aligning on similar passion areas or mission focuses, sharing learnings from the broader sector, or complementing their work with your own referrals and connections. It is worth your time to be intentional about each funder outreach when you know you are reaching out to deeply aligned funders who would be strong partners in your work.

At this stage, it is equally important to center on what you have to offer in the relationship. Funders and implementers go hand in hand; neither can exist without the other. You are presenting an opportunity to further their work and mission as a funder, just as much as they provide an opportunity to move your work forward. Own this and approach your outreach with this lens of mutual respect and authentic curiosity around where there may be opportunities to partner together for greater impact. 

Stage 3: Maintaining Momentum 

This stage occurs in parallel with the actual relationship advancement and outreach to funder prospects. Maintaining momentum is the central theme here. If you had a great first meeting with the funder, but they’re being non-responsive when you follow up or inform you of a strategic pivot, it is essential to make decisions. Do you want to adopt a low-effort maintenance outreach, ramp up your outreach, or pivot to other prospects altogether? 

There is often no one right answer, but this is informed by considering multiple information points you have collected in the course of your engagement. Additionally, in view of your own organization’s funding priorities and time, does it still make sense to pursue the opportunity? Build in moments of reflection for gut checks at this stage. 

Often a donor response is not their unwillingness to be direct and share a no. They also have competing priorities, an overflowing email inbox, and personal lives to balance with their professional lives. Give space for the timing to align, and ensure that as you maintain momentum, you are doing so in a way that honors both your bandwidth and the funder as a human who is also balancing other priorities in their daily schedule. 


Having touched upon the three stages, some key principles that our team has found helpful in the journey of professional persistence are: 

  • Every interaction with the funder should be mutually beneficial, even if the end goal is securing funds.
  • Building authentic relationships is key, to not just attracting funds, but to be a valuable sector player.
  • Adopt a lens that prioritizes long-term foresight. 
  • Consider your own values and opportunity cost. It is not just the funder’s time and preferences that matter, yours does too. 
  • Build a robust deeply aligned prospect pipeline; it improves organizational resilience and boosts your ability to deliver impact.

Our team at Black Fox Global wishes you the greatest success in your fundraising efforts! Both in securing the funds needed for your impactful mission, but also in the growth of your network and the authentic connections you build with funders and peer leaders along the way. We encourage you to utilize the corresponding Professional Persistence worksheet here as you consider how to maximize your current and potential funding opportunities. Onward! 

The recording from this Fundraising Masterclass is available on the Catalyst 2030 Youtube channel here, and linked here is the slide deck. Part two of this series, Maximizing Opportunities for Funding, is available here.

By Melizsa Mugyenyi, Advancement Specialist; Lisa Heinert, COO; and Hamsini Ravi, Communications Specialist | Black Fox Global