The first thing I hear from new clients is generally “we’ll just get some grants” or “how many grants do you think we’ll get this year?”

They never like the answer.

The answer is not “42.” If only it was that easy. The answer is that until you do your homework there’s really no way to know. You might luck into a foundation or business that’s ripe for exactly your project, but it might be a couple of years of developing that relationship before you see a dime.

Here’s a few steps to “just getting some grants.”

1. What: Do your research

I’m going to go crazy here and assume you’ve got a mission, a story, and some projects going. You need to find out who will be as inspired by that story as you are. Look at organizations with similar missions and basically copy over their foundation donor list to a file, or even do blunt instrument searches at the Foundation center, just to create a list of foundations in your area.

This is your starting point. You’re going to look at each of these and winnow it down by mission-match, budget-match, deadline and other criteria until you have a list of a size that is manageable for your situation. If you’re a one-person department, you’re not going to be able to manage 100 foundations. But you might be able to manage 5 or 10 or 20. Then pick up the phone.

2. Who: The next step is NOT “send a proposal”

Or worse, an intro letter. I can’t tell you the number of grant denials I’ve gotten from introductory letters. How humiliating to get a denial from someone that hasn’t been asked for money! What you can do is call the foundation director or program officer (they’ll let you know who you need to talk to). You’ll quickly learn which foundations are accessible and which more reticent, which don’t mind spending a couple of minutes on the phone, and which ones might even meet you for coffee or an office meeting.  The purpose of this meeting is not to ask for money. It’s to ask for advice. “Your foundation funds programs like mine, so I was wondering if you have any advice for an organization working on this issue.” Have a few talking points and know your industry, especially programs that this foundation funds.

Every foundation officer I ever spoke with on such an “informational interview” is still someone, years later, that I can call for advice, or to ask them to accept a proposal from a new client, or to sneak me in past deadline (if I’ve got a good excuse, like last winter when I broke my ankle and lost several days work.)

3. When: Everybody’s busy

Check the foundation’s proposal deadlines. If it’s open, then take your chances and call. If there’s a specific deadline, don’t ask for an informational interview within 3-4 weeks on either side of the deadline. If the meeting keeps getting moved, persist, emphasizing that you’re not asking for money, you’re asking for insight and advice.

I’ve had a few bad experiences with cranky foundation officers who blow me off, but for the most part foundation officers are extremely friendly and accessible. They especially like talking to people who don’t want anything from them in the next five minutes except their time.

4. Why: foundations are people, too

When it comes right down to it, go back to Fundraising 101. All giving is person to person. Foundation X does not give to Agency Y because of their beautiful graphics. They give because they’ve made a personal connection to you, a volunteer, a board member or a client. As you build these relationships, the foundation officers will start to tell you what to put in a proposal, and how much to ask for. I’ve had foundation officers practically write grants for me.

Foundations exist to give away money. They want to do it well. The people they employ are passionate do-gooders who want to know that they’re making an impact. Your organization fits the bill, but you, not packets of papers, are the best advocate.