GrantAdvisor’s goal is to help grantseekers get the information they need to be successful and increase public awareness of their role in the nonprofit sector. That means articulating how the current systems around grantseeking and grantmaking work. But just because the current systems are designed a certain way, that doesn’t mean they’re perfect.

GrantAdvisor also strives to improve relationships between grantseekers and grantmakers through honest feedback, and so that means pushing for change. In this blogpost, three grantwriters are teaming up to dive into what it takes to “steward” relationships with staff at grantmaking foundations. We’ll share some tips and ideas of things that we’ve found helpful as we’ve worked within the current system to engage foundation staff in our work.

With that being said, it warrants naming that there’s an inherent power differential even in the word “steward.” As you’ll soon see, most of these ideas require a grantseeker to do much of the legwork in the relationship (asking, anticipating, inferring). A key lingering question remains: What would it take to create more equal relationships in philanthropy?

Let us know what you think or have tried in the comments!

Barriers to Stewardship

Let’s start by identifying some common barriers to stewarding relationships with funders:

  • Few or no paid staff, program officer availability: There are over 120,000 foundations in the United States (and in GrantAdvisor’s database); the vast majority of them have few or no paid staff. For those that do, availability can vary drastically. Program officers might cover broad geographic regions and be on the road a lot, be expected to have knowledge or expertise on a range of subjects, and serve as a liaison to both grantees and boards and trustees (who have varied needs and expectations). Regardless of the reason, not being able to get to know a program officer is one of most frustrating obstacles to effective stewardship.

  • Unclear hierarchies of positional power and lack of clarity around what actually influences the funding decisions: After you click “submit” or hear the quiet thud of a grant proposal landing in the mail, what happens next? Does the program officer rewrite our proposals into two page summaries and present the info to the board who makes the ultimate funding decisions? Does a foundation staff member rub their eyes as they pick up the 16th proposal they’ve read in the last three hours and write copious notes on a worksheet? What information do foundations really need from us to be successful in their work?
  • No website, or sparse information: It’s estimated that only 10 percent of foundations in the United States have a website. Even if a foundation does have a website, it might not have the information a grantseeker needs to be successful. Things like staff and board lists, contact information, current and former grantees, and instructions for how to submit a proposal, are all important for grantseekers to know. Having this information means higher quality proposals for both the granseekers and grantmaker. 

“What information do foundations really need from us to be successful in their work?”

  • How do we reach them? Unhelpful contact information in a 990: In the absence of a website, many of us turn to the tax form 990 (available for free at places like GuideStar or the Economic Research Institute). We’ve used contact information from these forms to place calls that have gone horribly wrong. For example, one of us called the contact number listed on the form and got the executive director and had to spontaneously develop a case for funding (when we were really just trying to learn the foundation’s deadlines). Another one of us found the phone number listed on the 990 went to the bank administering the foundation’s finances, and another time it went to the Foundation’s founder’s teenage daughter’s cell phone. Awkward.
  • Lack of institutional knowledge of historical relationship: If we’re lucky, our predecessors have used some sort of database to document major milestones in our organization’s grantseeking endeavors. Unfortunately this level of information isn’t always available, so we’re left wondering: Who has funded us before, at what level, and for what? Who has built and stewarded the relationship so far? What are the key “shared memories” our organization has with the funder?

Building the Plan

Now that we’ve talked about the barriers to effective stewardship, let’s talk about how we work toward solutions. Let’s start with a few basics (which are some of the most commonly cited grievances among foundation program officers):
• If the funder does have a website, be sure to read it thoroughly before contacting them.
• If the funder has an online grants management system, please follow the procedures (and do not send them paper materials).
• If you are going to be late in submitting your grant report, let the funder know in advance.

Once you’ve covered the basics, here’s our general approach to developing a plan for funder stewardship:

  1. Identify Why and in What Capacity: Effective fundraising is always grounded in an organization’s mission and strategic plan. Before investing loads of precious time in developing a funder stewardship plan, ask yourself some key questions like: What are my organization’s goals and needs? How does grantseeking meet our goals? What’s our capacity to take on this work? Who will be involved in the work with me: other development staff, leadership, marketing and communications staff?

  2. Identify Who and What They Need to Be Successful: Effective stewardship is predicated on a knowledge of one’s audience. That’s why we like to take an audience-led approach in developing a stewardship plan. It’s important to understand who holds what roles and major duties at an institution, which helps grant professionals supply the right information in the right format to meet everyone’s goals (we’ve developed a handy chart at the end of this post to help). This will likely require some research. Start by creating a list of all of the funders with whom you’ll be interacting this year (prospective funder? Renewal request? Include them all!) How do your funders define success in their work and how are they communicating (what are they saying? with what platform? how often and to whom?)? Here are some ideas of information you could seek:
    • What’s their primary philanthropic mission? What are they seeking to accomplish in their work?
    • What are their interests, passions, assets, historical connection to your organization?
    • Do they have paid staff? What are their roles, major duties, and information needs?
    • Do they have a website? If yes, what does it say? (have there been changes in staffing, priorities, grantees since the last time you looked?)
    • Do they publish their annual report? Does it contain feature stories? How do they describe the impact of their philanthropy? Specifically, what words do they use?
    • Do they have a twitter account or use social media?
    • Me or the ED? Do they value positional power and are they offended if the grant writer does the outreach instead of the executive director? Who in our organization owns what relationships?
    • What do people say about them on

  3. Identify Why Now: What is happening in your organization, community, nation, field of study right now? In the next year? Find information that makes your act of stewardship timely, relevant, and necessary.

Stewardship Solutions

Once you’ve answered some of these key questions and done additional research on your funders, then it’s time to start mapping out some meaningful stewardship opportunities. In step two above, you’ve already investigated what you know about the foundation and who you might reach out to. Now, identify a solution below that highlights how your organization can help them meet their goals.

Foundation RoleMajor DutiesStewardship Tactics
Program OfficerUnderstand community needs and assets, leaders in the field

Match giving priorities with aligned work in the community

Articulate impact of charitable giving to executive leadership and board

Work collaboratively with other funders to magnify impact of giving
• Invite them to volunteer with your organization
• Invite them for a site visit
• Request a coffee meeting
• Send an informal e-update
• Information sharing from the news or published research relevant to your field/their giving priorities
• Invite them to an upcoming event at your organization
Communications ProfessionalArticulate the impact of the foundation’s work

Position foundation for earned media in relevant news sources

Monitor, flag, and respond to criticism
• Social media engagement (share their work, tag them in your own communications)
• Offer a short, compelling story about your organization’s work as a potential feature in their annual report
• Include them in relevant mailings about your organizations work (ie. annual report)
• Send pictures of kids and puppies (only sort of kidding)
Executive DirectorDefine the vision for the foundation’s charitable giving

Structure the organization with the resources and capacity to achieve its stated goals

Articulate the impact of the foundation’s philanthropy to the board of directors
• Request input on an organizational initiative
• Invite them to serve as a board or committee member
• Information sharing from the news or published research relevant to your field/their giving priorities
• Invite them for a site visit
• Request a coffee meeting
Board MemberFiduciary oversight and governance of the foundation• Usually limited opportunities unless you have an organic connection to them, in which case any of the previously mentioned stewardship tactics could apply (If you do contact board members, be sure to keep the foundation’s staff in the loop as their role is to serve as a liaison between the board and grantees)

We’d love to know what you have tried, especially if it doesn’t appear on this list. How are you tracking your engagements? How are you advocating for your needs? Leave us a comment below or email us at We’ll share your successes in our next post on this topic!

Special thanks to the Robert Hybben and JoAnne Peters at the Patrick and Aimee Butler Family Foundation for thoughtful feedback and input for this post!

About the authors:

Georgina Chinchilla Gonzalez is the grants and institutional support manager at The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO). In this role, Georgina solicits and stewards grant revenue in support of the SPCO’s work.

 Andrea Sanow is the development coordinator at the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits and serves as the GrantAdvisor content coordinator for In this role, she supports and advances the philanthropic support of MCN’s programs and operations as well as increases the visibility and credibility of GrantAdvisor.

Kari Aanestad is codirector of and the director of advancement at the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits (MCN). In this role, Kari advances the mission and work of MCN and Minnesota’s nonprofit sector through strategic visioning, fundraising, relationship development, sector research, and education. She also serves as the Vice President of the Minnesota-Northstar Chapter of the Grant Professionals Association.