Through my work at Luminate, I get to support courageous investigative journalism and fact-checking organizations, and a range of innovative independent media outlets in Southeast Asia. Depending on the structure or circumstance, my team and I make non-profit grants or for-profit investments.
I had a stint early on in my career as a fundraiser. There are many types of funders and each work slightly differently. But in general, here are a few rules of thumb to follow once you’ve identified a funder whom you think could support your important work.
Find your “in”
Before you can make an ask, you’ll need to get in front of the potential donor or investor. Some funders put out public calls for proposals and the process for getting considered generally follows set timelines and criteria. Other funders use a referral system, relying on their staff and networks to source opportunities. Some offer both options.
A personal referral is going to be the most effective route. Think about who can speak credibly and knowledgably about your work, and whose judgement the potential funder might trust. Another long-time donor of yours is the ideal conduit. Given how close-knit the industry is, and the fact that funders are often well-networked with each other, they will likely already be connected.
If not, you’re left with the usual routes when you’re trying to cold call — looking for LinkedIn connections, trying to meet during a conference, and as a last resort, sending an unsolicited email.
Do your research
A cold email that is impersonal, presumptuous or overly general is not likely to have traction. With any meeting or call request, you’ll want to show how it will be worth the potential funder’s while.
Read their website, look for articles or blogs they might have published, get insights from people who know the inside track. This will help you craft an opening volley that speaks their language and to their mission. There may be a new project of yours that you think will resonate.
But if your website doesn’t capture it or if it’s too many clicks down — don’t bury the lede — include a one-pager describing it. Given the number of worthwhile projects and the unfortunately scarce funding pool, you are competing for their attention so you’ll need a strong hook.
Build a relationship
In all cases, even with requests for proposals, at the other end of your application is a person (or a group of people) with an allocation decision to make.
Look for opportunities to build relationships and cultivate champions for your work face to face, if it is at all possible. Pro-tip: the urgency bias means that you are more likely to get an in-person meeting if you write and say, “I’ll be in town in two weeks, it’ll be great to discuss things in person.”
Be genuine, and try not to be over-eager or harass. If you produce a quarterly organizational update or an annual report, share it with potential funders, along with a personal note asking to reconnect — it’s a low-key way of keeping your organization top of mind and creating more opportunities for dialogue.
Getting to know the funder is also about helping you vet them – you want to make sure any investor is aligned on your mission.
Be direct and specific
After you’ve heard directly about their current strategy, priorities, or goals for the year, you’ll have a much better idea of whether your organization is a fit or not.
Everyone knows that you’re not really just asking for a coffee – so don’t end even an introductory meeting without mutually agreed upon follow-up steps.
This might be providing more information, a concept note, or a report back after an upcoming milestone. Ask whether they see the opportunity to enter a funding discussion. And when it is time, be direct and specific about what you are looking for support for, and why their contribution will be particularly meaningful to your organization at this time.
Don’t psych yourself out
I get it — barring the cab drivers who have opinions on the rent you must be paying — discussing money is a social taboo. For many people, asking for money is a deeply uncomfortable experience. But if you’re feeling embarrassed, it makes the other person feel awkward too.
So let’s reframe this.
First, remember that it is literally their job to be asked for money. And secondly, you’re not really asking for money at all — what you are is giving them is an opportunity to be a learning partner as you innovate and experiment, and to be part of your impactful mission.
Melanie Hui leads Luminate’s portfolio in Southeast Asia. Established in 2018, Luminate is a global philanthropic organisation with the goal of empowering people and institutions to work together to build just and fair societies. She will be speaking about fundraising at Splice Beta 2020.