Learning from Funder Feedback

Organizations can learn a lot from funder feedback. On today’s Coffee Time with Mastermind’s episode, we discuss how to make the most of your fundraising experience by incorporating donor feedback in your organization’s development goals.


Rebecca Tuttle 0:08

Welcome to Coffee Time with Masterminds. In today’s episode, we’re going to talk about the importance of funder feedback, and how we can maximize feedback from funders to help us achieve our fundraising goals.

CTMM jingle 0:21

Rebecca Tuttle 0:50

Welcome to Coffee Time with Masterminds. I’m Rebecca Tuttle, and I’m joined today by my colleague, Cynthia Rojas. I just want to come on here, Cynthia. Good morning! Welcome to the show, unmute your mic. Pieta is taking the day off today she’s off in Washington D.C.. So, when she comes back, she’ll have to tell us all about her exciting trip, okay.

Cynthia Rojas 1:13

Yeah. I am really good and I’m excited about this show because this is what leaders always want to know. How do we incorporate, how do we get feedback, and how do we incorporate it in a way that aligns with our mission.  So, it’s a great show today.

Rebecca Tuttle 1:34

Absolutely, it’s funder feedback is one of those areas where I don’t think that we as organizations maximize its potential enough. Sometimes, it’s a little intimidating to reach out to fund earnest and ask them questions like, why didn’t you fund us or can you give any feedback on our grant applications. But there’s also that area of reaching out to funders and asking them what we did well. In organizational leadership in your niche, Cynthia. How important is reaching out to get feedback on the positive skill, as well?

Cynthia Rojas 2:21

Well, I love that because we tend to think about getting feedback when things don’t go well. But this idea of getting feedback when we do something well, and it’s all part of relationship building, which is what you are constantly reminding us about. That it’s instrumental to have relationships with your funders before they become your funders, and, during the funding relationship, and even after, so you have a rolodex. Did i just say rolodex?

Rebecca Tuttle 2:52

Yeah, but that’s okay.

Cynthia Rojas 2:55

In the viewers have no idea what that is. But you have a long contact with the funders in your life because you specialize in grant writing, and you keep you maintaining your relationship. If there’s anything I’ve learned from you, it is that maintaining, keeping, and building that relationship is key even when they’re not your funder.

Rebecca Tuttle 3:21

Absolutely, I just wanted to let everyone know today’s coffee time episode is a 30-minute conversation with leaders of mission-based organizations. If you have any experience that you want to share in the comments, or introduce yourself and let us know where you’re from. We’d love to hear your experience with getting that positive funder feedback.

Cynthia Rojas 3:48

That’s a nice way to do the intro in three and a half minutes. That’s clever, I love that. I also talk about benchmark. It’s march 25th 2022; the state of Connecticut shut down on march 20th 2020. It has been just over two years since we recognized that covid-19 was a pandemic, and we had to mandate for people to stay home in order to keep them alive. The reason why that’s so big for us, for you, myself, and, Pieta, is that we started this show because of the pandemic. We’re here two years later and we’ve even had to change the focus we used to focus on leading during the pandemic, and now we are focusing on leading during complex times. So, I have known you, and called you my friend, for two years Rebecca.

Rebecca Tuttle 4:53

Me too. Put me in your rolodex. I know it’s crazy to think about, but with that transition with the adaptation we spent a lot of time talking about adaptation and new norms. But with that also came changes in funding. I saw it in just my work alone, a tremendous amount, of new opportunities to be able to gather and collect funders feedback, to have more conversations with funders where it used to be a very strict process. Now, it’s gotten a little bit more flexible because of covid. So, the ability to nurture and grow relationships with funders and get that critical feedback has been, i think easier since the pandemic.

Cynthia Rojas 5:45

Yes, also knowing so funders also have focal areas; they also have a vision; they also have a mission. And through these conversations you are able to see if your mission and vision aligns with theirs. This is important because I had an executive director tell me. I can’t go to that funder because they’re only funded by funding covid-related things. However, her programming changed because of the covid; she expanded her audience. We did a community survey and the respondent said how well of a job they did during the covid. In my eyes, she should be part of the pool of people who get funding because of covid. I think she was thinking of food banks, those kinds of funding. But if you know your funders, you know what they are, what their vision is, so that’s another important reason.

Rebecca Tuttle 6:50

Interestingly, I find that when organizations are unsure, or they sort of put that stop up. Well, we don’t really fit into the covid priorities with the funder, so we’re not going to attempt to apply. I think, oftentimes, it’s because organizations don’t necessarily know how to clearly articulate the ask. And that’s where the feedback comes in. If you’re unsure of how to articulate, how you fit in, or what you would ask, or how you formulate your narrative. The opportunity to outreach in advance of your proposal to a program officer and ask questions and talk it out with them. They’re more than willing to do that, I would say, in 99 of the cases. Taking advantage of a courteous way of reaching out to those program officers to those foundations ahead of your application can help clarify some of those unknowns. And it’s interesting because I write grants for clients all over the country. The way that grants are written on the west coast is drastically different than on the east coast. Even the fundraising approach, in general. It goes without saying that you will reach out to foundations before you apply for grants and before you submit for capacity building and other funding on the west coast. That’s just common practice for them and it’s highly expected of a funder for applicants to do that. Whereas, I think, on the east coast we’re a little more, timid about doing that, about following that process, even though funders are saying, give us a call. Here’s, the Q&A, submit questions. We’re here to help you. It’s really interesting to see the different dynamics and the different approach.

Cynthia Rojas 8:40

I didn’t realize that the coasts were so different. I’m totally east coast. When I first started working in in the non-profit sector, I was intimidated by funders and I was one of those people that you’re talking about. It’s totally cultural. I didn’t realize that.

Rebecca Tuttle 9:11

It’s really interesting. It’s also a great way to meet program officers to meet foundations, get to know them, because even if you’re reaching out to, let’s say, three foundations. But you’re not quite sure about one of them; you’re like, this really is the right fit for us. We’re going to go ahead and apply, and the other one might be something that you’re forecasting later so we might apply in the future. Reaching out to three different program officers with three different funds and having conversations with them, it’s not only educational. but it’s a great way to introduce your organization to different foundations. Learn more about their work, while they’re at the same time, learning about your work. Even if they can’t fund you or you received a declination letter. They might recommend you to other foundations within their networks. So, feedback, isn’t limited just to are we a right fit to apply or why did we receive a declination. It’s also for you to have the opportunity to ask those foundations questions, to help navigate your path for forward funding, if that makes any sense.

Cynthia Rojas 9:55

Yeah. I love that, funders are a pool of resources. Could they help us with so many things. I love that you’re saying use them for that as well, not just for getting feedback on your application or on your proposal. One reason why we’re having this conversation is that this is the series on learning right. How can, how can you become a learning organization? The steps to that, is getting feedback, making sense of it, so lots of sense making with your conversations. About really looking at stuff, and asking, then using that information to be better, to do things a different way or to articulate why you’re doing something. So, you don’t always have to change what you’re doing. Sometimes it’s just a matter, people don’t know what you’re doing. You don’t want her to read, to learn about you for the first time through a piece of paper.

Rebecca Tuttle 11:33

Right, and if you do you have to have a really tight persuasive narrative, which is really tough. I mean, even what someone would consider the simplest form of grant writing is still difficult, because the amount of funding available has grown exponentially since the pandemics. Now, there’s more of what you would call competition in the space to apply for funds. So, we need to really hone in and one of my students in the class yesterday was talking about niching down. You really need to niche down your unique differentiator to get your proposal to stand out and what better way to do that then to use and incorporate some funder feedback and funder engagement in the process.

Cynthia Rojas 12:22

Yeah, and is not just covid. A lot of funders also want to make sure that they are practicing equitable practices in their funding. And what they’re doing is actively seeking out your smaller grass roots, often bypass-led organizations to make sure that they are at the table and that they understand that they too are eligible for funding. And really working with them to understand that part of the work grassroots organizations, tend to struggle because they’re less institutionalized, they don’t have a development director so this push toward equity and funders really looking at trust-based philanthropy, and focusing on diversifying their pool of grantees, has created a lot of change and the competition is higher. As a result, you could be competing with someone who’s never been funded, but because of very intentional outreach that person is now in the pool of candidates.

Rebecca Tuttle 13:39

Absolutely, funding that’s out there isn’t just limited to grant applications. There are direct donations; there are legacy giving; there’s a whole portfolio of development. What I’ve found with a lot of our clients is that, we’ll apply for funding for grants. Then the program officers will reach back out and say, there are other funds within our foundation, that we would like you to write up a letter of introduction so that we can pass it along to some of the other donors within our foundation. We have actually gotten matching gifts that way, we’ve gotten the same amount, if not greater than we’ve gotten from the grant applications we’ve submitted. So, never underestimate just how much your message carries when you speak with a foundation officer, speak with a donor, or submit your applications and interests. Even your letters of interest, can carry quite a bit further than just that initial approach, so it’s fantastic. I think what funders are doing is extremely generous, but it’s been a fantastic transition in that realm, us, if we could look on the brighter side of a covid pandemic.

Cynthia Rojas 14:57

Yeah. There are a lot of good things that have come out of this pandemic. There were two points. I need to start writing stuff down because I’m getting to that age, which is it just frees out of me. Rebecca, have you ever intentionally applied for something assuming you weren’t going to get it the first time, but you would lose using it as a learning tool to then improve your application the second time?

Rebecca Tuttle 15:23

That’s a really good question. Cynthia. I don’t think that I’ve ever applied knowing we wouldn’t get it. But rather, we applied, knowing it might be a long shot, and using that experience to make improvements in the next round. Also, using that experience, and by using, I mean in a functional respectful way. Using that experience to introduce our organization to the funder. Another example, I can give you is, we may have applied for a grant under a community heading, whereas maybe it was more of a right fit for a neighborhood investment grant. And so, the funder actually, with their feedback, they directed us to apply next time for neighborhood funding, because we didn’t really fit within the community header of that particular fund. That’s a really smart way of navigating your grant portfolio. I’m really glad you brought that up.

Cynthia Rojas 16:27

Yeah. I have heard of individuals doing that. I thought, wow, what a great way to incorporate learning. They didn’t put grants in their budget; there were no expectations. Except that they would get feedback. And it was the type of funding application where it’s based on a point system. So, they get like, really concrete feedback in terms of the number of points that they lost. MA LaSalle has a couple of comments on the comment page, but before this one she mentioned, “promote, promote, promote, is what my boss always says.” Yes, we have to promote our organizations and every time you submit an application you are promoting your mission and vision.

Rebecca Tuttle 17:26

Absolutely, it should be consistent across all media, all modalities. So, what you’re writing on the page should be what your website says should be what your letters of interest say. That’s really important, especially, if you have outdated information or programs that you no longer use. You really want to be on top of how you’re presenting your information and promoting your organization, that’s a great point. Myra. Thank you.

Cynthia Rojas 17:26

Yeah. Even Myra has used it for interviews, so she’s gone to an interview knowing she wouldn’t get it for the practice so the practice is important; the practice is important. I do want to say something about the website that you just mentioned Rebecca. MA LaSalle says, “you know how I feel about interviews.” Yes, MA is not fond of interviews, and getting that practice is really important. But going in with no expectations, I think is key because if not, it could dampen your confidence. You want to be clear about why you’re doing it. Now, I forgot the point I was going to make

Rebecca Tuttle 18:35

You were saying there was a time.

Cynthia Rojas 18:40

There was a time where there were no websites; there was no internet. Can you imagine. I was alive during that time. Also, when we first started doing websites, the big deal was, it was a way to get business. People would go on the internet, they would look up, they would put in some keywords, and your website would pop up. Now, business development is done in a very different way and it’s much more targeted. Websites are so important, because although they may not be driving business, it is how people learn about you. You just made the point, Rebecca, about making sure that you that your website is updated. I cannot tell you how many times I go to websites, and I can see that they’re not updated. It’s not good because that’s how people are conducting their research about you, so let’s get those websites updated.

Rebecca Tuttle 19:50

You know, the other piece of that too, is we can learn a lot about foundations, and funders, and donors by visiting their website. They publish a lot of white papers; we should be reading that material. We should be connecting with them on social, and paying attention, and learning about the things that funders say they care about. And that’s, I believe another way to gain funder feedback, especially, if you can get into that funder social media engagement. We could be conversing with funders in real time on the media to show that we are making an investment in what they believe in, and vice versa. That we share the same mission and vision, so that’s a great way to get feedback as well, that sometimes we don’t think about.

Cynthia Rojas 20:35

Well, let me ask you, Rebecca. What happens when we’ve been talking about funders, let’s talk about donors. Because many organizations have major donors and what happens when we first talk about it, how do we get feedback from our donors. But in that conversation, I would also like to ask you. What happens when the donor has a different vision that is not completely aligned with your programs. How do we get donor feedback let’s start there?

Rebecca Tuttle 21:12

So, we receive donor feedback by just asking. So, if I have an organization that I care about as a person, as a human being. Then, I’m willing to donate to them because I want to see and help their success, so I give my gift. Sometimes, you don’t hear anything from the organization other than the prescribed, thank-you note. But we should be calling those donors, and thanking them. Thank you for this gift. What made you give, what compelled you? What resonated within you that we’re doing here by way of our mission, at our organization? And asking them why they gave is huge, because I give to things that are important to me because they either remind me of my children, or they remind me of a family member, or a friend who may have passed away, or that is currently, you know, loving in my life.

That is just, you know, this is a great organization, something that pulled at my heartstrings and made me want to participate there. Asking, is, I think number one, doing that personal outreach, again, back to their relationships. Another, is using your data. I wish Pieta was here with us today, right. We could talk about that data. Where are people giving from geographically? If we’re collecting any other demographic data, what did the data tell us? How much are people giving? What are the trends in giving? So, have we received more or are we in a funding dip? Which can be discouraging to folks. But i believe, if your fundraising was up here last year, and then it kind of dipped down, and is slowly going back up.

sThere’s a reason for that dip, paying attention to that time period reaching out to donors who maybe gave historically during that time period or did give during that time period is really important, because that signals to me that we need a shift in our fundraising efforts that what we are traditionally doing isn’t meeting the needs of our donors. There’s a lot of feedback we can extract, I think, it really centers on outreach, and then looking at your data.

Cynthia Rojas 23:39

Yeah, and you know, you get so much information just looking at trends. There’s a lot of fear or anxiety among executive directors and CEOs of non-profit organizations because the pandemic, from many organizations, actually, increased donor giving. And there’s a fear that that’s going to dip after this pandemic starts to feel less urgent. What I’m hoping leaders are doing is, using their data, look at the donors, pre-pandemic donors during the pandemic. Make some sense out of that, and begin to develop strategies to keep, especially, if you got new donors to keep your donors. The ones you gain through the pandemic, post-pandemic, or when things start to level down. A lot of leaders are feeling that this is the new normal and so that that pressure that we all felt at the beginning of the pandemic has really slowed down. So, we might be arriving at a state of equilibrium, and now is the time to start looking at your data. Keep those new donors fine and make it easy, i don’t need to

Rebecca Tuttle 25:04

Making it easy, I don’t mean to interrupt you. Cynthia. I’m sorry. I just wanted to say, just making it easy for people to give. Electronic giving is huge, right. Very rarely do we see paper checks come anymore; some people prefer that and that’s fine. But make it easy for people to give, and your outreach conversations with people should not always be an ask. If you’re always asking me for something. I’m like, well, she’s only calling me because she wants something even though I’m in a rolodex.

Cynthia Rojas 25:32

Yes, I want to say this because I love my Alma mater. And they’ve done a great job at increasing my donations. So, I think they’re highly skilled in that. However, they only call me for money. I love that they call me, but my can the director or the VP of development can call me every once, in a while and say thank you. Thank you for increasing your giving throughout the years, and I’ve never gotten that call. Maybe, she’s listening and she’ll call me now, but it’s that balance and it’s funny because they come up on my phone. They are a contact on my phone because we’ve been doing this for years and I love talking to them. And I’ll ask them, can you tell me what I gave all of last year or two years ago, like because I’m in the industry. I get very curious, and I love their strategy but they don’t do personal thank you, which is really

Rebecca Tuttle 26:53

Yeah, and you’ll hear a lot, well, we just don’t have the manpower or woman power to be able to do that. You have a board of directors who’s more than willing and able to help you. That’s why they’re there, they’re volunteering their time, so if you can split up the donor list into quarters, by people. If you have one board member calling 10 donors, just check in. It can be done, many organizations underestimate just how much power in people they have to be able to outreach, whereas they narrow it down to think it’s only limited to paid staff. But volunteers are willing to help. You just have to ask them.

Cynthia Rojas 27:32

Yeah. I love the words, please, and thank you. I love those two words; I love to hear them. I love to write them. I think if you’re if you are fundraising in any capacity, whether your CEO or an actual director of development, though, saying thank you is really important. Which is why it’s a pet peeve with me and my Alma mater, because they could call me; they have no problem calling me asking me for money. And they actually tell me how much to donate, which is a great thing. This is how they increase my donation. Would you like this for us, would you like to donate x, y, z? And I’m like, yeah. I don’t know

Rebecca Tuttle 28:13

You know, a secret to increasing giving is splitting the donation annually by month. So, a lot of organizations have put on monthly giving, so if you give 25 a month or 100 a month, it adds up often times to greater than you gave for that year annually, or that one-time gift. It’s also electronically processed often times, so you kind of don’t think about it as going out, you know. 
There are so many clever ways that you can request support from individuals and organizations.

Cynthia Rojas 28:59

Yeah. I just learned this weekend, that there is a library. It is a free library that so far has got has every book that I have searched. It has millions and millions of books, and they have decided to do a fundraising campaign. I think, I use them five times and I donate it because I was like oh my, what a wonderful resource it’s called zlibrary.org

Rebecca Tuttle 29:27

I’m going to write that down

Cynthia Rojas 29:30

Or maybe,.com. It has academic journals and books. I tell you, it’s changed my life and I’m mentioning this because it’s aligned with what you’re saying, Rebecca. They made it so easy, I went on the website to do some research, and on the top.. it said, “you have used us six times, are you finding us.” I don’t know beneficial. If so, donate, press the button, and literally just my name, my credit card and hit send.

Rebecca Tuttle 30:00

Easy way to give.

Cynthia Rojas 30:03

Yes, that’s really great.

Rebecca Tuttle 30:07

I hope everyone looks up that resource because I know I sure will. So, thank you for sharing the library.com.org. We’re at the 30-minute mark, but I know you had a second half of your question.

Cynthia Rojas 30:21

Yes, thank you. So, what happens when you have a major donor. So, you’re talking big money, and their vision is not quite aligned with your programming. What’s a CEO to do?

Rebecca Tuttle 30:38

That’s a really difficult position to be in. I think it all depends upon that misalignment. It is a new shift in your focus.? Is it a new shift in the donor’s focus? The best thing that I think that organization or executive director should do is reach out to their donors and let them know what the change is. What the new direction is. If it is hopefully, for favorable reasons. Being able to explain that change in direction shift in momentum might be surprising and find that they will give to you, because they understand that new focus that you’ve taken on. If the funder or the donor has taken on a new focus. Reaching out and asking them about that new direction and seeing if any of your work that’s shifted. Any of your adaptations match up with that new direction of that donor. I think, it all starts with conversations and if you’ve been stewarding that relationship over time. Then that outreach should come pretty comfortably to that executive director.

Cynthia Rojas 31:51

Yeah, that’s good. I was thinking of an example. I know we’re over. Maybe we’ll pick it up next week. Something like, what if you were providing some kind of training, and a donor came to you and said, I want to fund your child care during these trainings, and you’re not ready to be licensed for that. You don’t have staff that can watch the children, and it would require setting something up. What happens and that’s in that scenario. Well, you’re going to have to watch us next week to get the answer.

Rebecca Tuttle 32:36

Yes, that’s a juicy one. I can’t wait to talk about it.

Cynthia Rojas 32:40

Alright, Rebecca, this has been fun. Ma LaSalle, thank you so much as always for joining us. I feel like you’re part of our team, and Pieta. She’s probably listening, please know that we missed you. We’ll see you next week. Take care.

Rebecca Tuttle 32:58

Thank you, everyone. Bye.

Pieta Blakely

About Pieta Blakely

I help mission-based organizations measure their impact so that they can do what they do well. I started my nonprofit career as a teacher in workforce development and adult basic education. It was important work and I was worried that we didn’t really know if we were doing it well. In the process of trying to answer that question, I got a Masters in Education and a PhD in Social Policy, and became an evaluator.

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