Tips for Minority Serving Institutions that Want to Build Relationships with Foundations

Caroline Altman Smith

Caroline Altman Smith

Because MSIs educate a diverse array of students, have a unique history and culture, and often serve as anchor institutions in their communities, there are many potential areas of mutual interest with local and national foundations.  But foundations can be mysterious.  Some have a bad rap for not being transparent enough about their grantmaking priorities, and for being fortress-like when you try to reach a live person.  Many MSIs have small development shops, which can make it tough to have a specialized foundation relation function.  But it’s worth spending time and energy building relationships with foundations; they can be a great source of funds, technical assistance and other types of support.  With any luck, it can be the beginning of a beautiful friendship for both of you.

 Advice for Getting Started:

  • Make sure to do your homework by visiting foundations’ websites and learning about their priorities.  Once you’ve determined there is a reasonable potential fit, it is time to contact the foundation.  If you are located in the same city, try for an in-person meeting.
  • If that is not feasible, try to arrange a phone call by setting an appointment, and sharing a brief document to provide background information about your institution and proposed project.  Not all foundations are open to these types of introductory phone calls, but it’s worth a shot.
  • At the appropriate time, engage your president.  Especially in the initial stages when you need to make introductions, establish trust, and share your vision for the institution, the president’s involvement can be very helpful, as presumably he or she is your college’s best spokesperson.
  • Often, foundations will say on their websites that they don’t accept unsolicited proposals.  It’s still worth a call to find out whether or not the foundation would be open to an introductory meeting, and ask what the process for being invited to submit a proposal is.

Keep in Mind:

  • Don’t assume the foundation knows about the special mission of MSIs and the type of students you serve.  Place your institution in a local and national context and be ready to frame and articulate your needs and opportunities in a way that aligns with the foundation’s goals.
  • Many institutions will seek funds for individual programs that serve a modest number of students.  This is often a tough sell, as boosting retention rates for 50 or 100 students at a time is admirable but not sufficient.  Much more interesting are systemic efforts to improve the student experience, increase productivity, innovate in teaching and learning, and increase retention and graduation rates.
  • Broaden your scope and explain your college’s role in your community, however you define that.  Is the college active in a local college access network?  If you are located in one of the 57 Talent Dividend cities, are you playing a role in this collective effort to improve college attainment?
  • If a foundation cannot help with an actual grant, find out if there are other open avenues of support.  Many foundations seek ways to add value beyond the grant check, including hosting convenings, providing technical assistance, making introductions to other funders, and playing an important knowledge management role by sharing resources and the latest research.

Keeping in Touch

  • Ask the program officer if he or she would be open to you “pinging” them every once in a while informally to stay in touch—but don’t overload them.  You could send a note to share some good news (e.g., securing a new grant or the election of a new board chair).  This helps keep your institution ‘top of mind’ for the program officer.
  • Invite program officers to participate in activities and events, which can be celebratory or ceremonial (e.g., special fundraising events) or learning opportunities (e.g., site visits or conferences your institution is hosting).
  • Invite a program officer to serve on one of the college’s advisory committees.

During the relationship-building process, it’s important to be candid with the program officer.  Be frank about the college’s strengths, challenges and needs, while also presenting a positive vision of the future and a rationale of why the college is worthy of investment.  If your college has an emergency funding need, it’s a lot easier to find support if you have already built existing relationships, rather than trying to convince someone to invest in a sinking ship.

Relationships between grantees and program officers can be professionally and personally rewarding.  There’s a powerful symbiosis between foundations and nonprofit institutions, both of whom need the other to achieve their missions.  While foundations can be mysterious, figuring out how to build relationships with foundation staff doesn’t need to be.  Behind every foundation are people, and they are likely drawn to the work for the same reason as you:  because they have an interest in fostering opportunities for people to fulfill their full potential, to strengthen institutions that form the fabric of our society, and to create positive social change.

Caroline Altman Smith is a Senior Program Officer at The Kresge Foundation in metropolitan Detroit, which focuses its education work on improving access to and through college for low-income and underrepresented students.  Learn more at or follow @kresgedu.

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