With Everyone on Vacation, It's Strategy Time for Fundraisers

Notice a lot of "Out of Office" messages right now in response to your emails? I'll bet you do, assuming you're not on vacation yourself. Late August is by far the quietest time in the nonprofit world. 

Foundation Source’s 2014 Annual Report on Private Foundations showed that grantmaking is at its lowest level in August. Because foundations have an annual distribution requirement, giving peaks in a flurry of activity come December. Which means that instead of agonizing about all those unreturned emails, now's a great time to be plotting strategy for that last quarter of grantmaking.

“The first thing nonprofits can do is understand the rhythm and pace of their donors’ calendars,” Philanthropic Director Elizabeth Wong of Foundation Source told Inside Philanthropy. “This is probably not the best time to do a full court press or to do a serious, hardball 20-page proposal for a grant, because there are a lot of vacations going on, particularly with small family foundations. Children are still out of school.”

In practice, things probably won't be hopping again until the second week of September, or even later. Here is a handful of strategies to pursue over the next few weeks to ready your organization for the fall grantmaking season:

Confront the big questions. Evaluate your organization’s strategic direction and its impact. Summer is a perfect time for self-reflection. Ask yourself if there’s anything that can be done differently and assess areas of improvement.

Make sure that your legal status is what it should be, primarily that you are in good standing with the IRS as a 501(c)(3) public charity and that your annual reporting requirements have been fulfilled by filing the appropriate Form 990s. IRS regulations are complicated and occasionally ambiguous. Be certain that you’re in compliance with rules that often change.

Do a web search on your organization. Ensure that you don’t find any negative reviews by disgruntled former employees or beneficiaries who felt slighted. Make sure that you have a healthy balance between your solicitation budget and your outflow in charitable expenditures, or you could end up on a report like this one. Face any problems you find and deal with them. You want to do due diligence on your organization before funders do.

Enhance your knowledge. Take the time to research funders, the causes they embrace and their strategic goals. Cast a wide net. Inside Philanthropy has multiple guides to grantmakers in its GrantFinder section. “When I was fundraising,” said David Callahan, the founder and editor-in-chief of Inside Philanthropy, “I craved insights about program officers and how foundations made decisions.” You’re find actionable information here.

“One thing nonprofits might consider doing is offering informal learning sessions about not just their organization, but about the fields in which they work,” Wong told Inside Philanthropy. “Or simply schedule a phone call, a conversation, without the expectation that the conversation would end with a concrete ask, but that it would be a learning opportunity for both donor and nonprofit.”

“Organizations that are focused on improving environmental conditions and conserving outdoor spaces could host hikes, outdoor picnics and learning sessions in the spaces they are trying to preserve,” Wong said. “They could open it to the public, they could offer specific invitations to some of the donors they want to work with, and they could educate all of us on the value of the land or the ecosystem they are working so hard to protect. That’s a great way to take advantage of the warmer weather,” Wong said.

Make this the time to recruit for your board, adding people who can complement your efforts with their expertise. "Selecting board members is a serious endeavor which requires thought, really establishing a good match between the candidates and the organization’s needs. There’s no time better. When there’s little pressure, you can take some of the intensity off a conversation.”

Finally, take advantage of a summer gathering like a working picnic to develop team cohesion, and both aspirational and concrete goals for the fall. “Maybe the summer is a good time for a staff retreat, a good moment to get revved up for the grant seeking season,” Wong said.

“With approximately 90,000 private foundations in the U.S., they’re each going to have a different calendar. There may be some decision making at the end of the summer, but more save those activities for the fourth quarter, so August might be a little premature for submitting that significant request that you’ve been planning for all year. It’s really critical to learn as much as you can about whom you’re working with,” Wong said.

Foundation Source is the nation’s largest provider of support services for private foundations now offering support to more than 1,200 family, corporate, and professionally staffed foundations nationwide.