Tough Times Demand Re-Emphasizing Relationships

Kathy Reeves

You often hear common-sense advice when attending conferences. You take notes and you ask yourself, “This is so basic, I can’t believe I’m writing it down.” But have you ever caught yourself repeating that fundamental information several times after the event?That’s what happened after Kathy Reeves, the Community Relations Manager for Enterprise Holdings, spoke at the eighth annual Charity Symposium by the St. Louis Better Business Bureau on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2009.  

The theme was, “Giving: Focus On The Economy.” Reeves’ presentation could be summed up with the headline, “Tough Times Demand Re-Emphasizing Relationships.”  

“In my mind, this is such an important time to be talking with your partners — both foundations and corporations,” she said. “Invite them for coffee. Invite them for a tour. Show them what their funds have done. Invite them to see programs. Reach out to them and talk about your story. Because if they funded you once, then they wanted you to succeed. They’re your advocates. But the only way they can be your advocates is if they know your story.”  

Once again, here’s a call to action for nonprofit communications and marketing professionals. But communicating to corporate partners and foundations requires an approach that’s embraced and executed by executive directors and the fundraising and development staff. These individuals often have a tendency to shy away from communicating the unvarnished truth because they don’t want to create a perception that they’re failing to fulfill the organization’s mission.  

“The biggest issue is that you have to communicate with funders and tell them that you have two less people and you’re trying to serve 30 percent more people,” Reeves said. “If you don’t communicate that to them, they won’t understand your situation.  

“Most (nonprofits) understand that grant makers don’t love to fund operating expenses. We’re now seeing much more of a willingness from grantmakers to fund operating expenses. Again, part of this goes back to telling your story. If you don’t tell them how the economy is affecting you and impacting your bottom line, they won’t know what your needs are.”  

So what can organizations do? Reeves said the current economic situation requires two-way communication.  

“We’re spending a lot more time talking to our partners,” she said. “In fact, we’re reaching out more to them and asking them what they need, ‘We used to do this with you, now what we should be doing?’ If (funders) are not getting it, help them understand.”  

Reeves also emphasized relationship maintenance with corporations or foundations that no longer provide funding. I probably use the phrase, “St. Louis is a big small town” about once a week. That statement accurately describes the business and philanthropic communities in many towns. But in St. Louis, many nonprofits struggle to navigate a corporate landscape that continues to shift. Anyone working in the nonprofit community for a decade or more can rattle off a list corporations that no longer call St. Louis “home.”  

“If someone starts cutting funding that you’ve received in the past or if somebody cuts it completely, this is not a time to be rude,” Reeves said. “And that happens… it’s amazing how many times that happens. Show loyalty because that will never be forgotten. Not only that, but when they’re talking to other funders, they are probably going to tell other funders a story about how gracious you were. Because all of the grantmakers do talk and they love good stories. They love good organizations.  

“Grantmakers also network and do it fairly well. They talk to each other, mostly about (nonprofits). We talk about who the best directors are and what the best programs are. We talk about people we’ve had challenges with.”  

With so many requests for funding, there’s a perception that grantmakers are overwhelmed with requests. With the stock market down 30 percent or more from its all-time high of two years ago or so, foundations have less money to give.  

When a foundation declines your request, accept it and don’t do an end-run around the person who handles requests.  

“No means no,” Reeves said. “A better approach than going through five other doors in the organization is to call the funder and ask them for reasons why you were turned down. If you just go through another door, they are going to hear about it. It’s probably going to land back on their desk and they’re going to wonder why no means no.”   

Foundations still want to fund organizations that are striving to solve problems.  

“One thing you don’t think about is that grantmakers and funders are the biggest optimists in the world,” Reeves said. “They really believe that they can address a cause or an issue if they give money to a program and that program will fix it or, at least address it. Tell them your story. Tell them about prior successes. And tell them about your struggles. The way that you’re going to get that flexibility from your funders is by helping them understand what your needs are. That’s how you build those partnerships.”  

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