My colleague Jillian Rosen and I were both at grant-seeking organizations before we joined the community foundation field. Having engaged with many other foundations during that time, I learned to deeply value the nature of community foundations – they are inherently more accessible, engaged, and respectful than many other institutional funders. It’s why we’re both so grateful to be working at a community foundation and pleased to present some background and tips for how YOU can engage YOUR community foundation.

Common Characteristics of Community Foundations

Community foundations are 501(c)(3) public charities that engage in both grantmaking and fundraising activities. With over 700 community foundations in the U.S., it’s likely that your nonprofit works within one of those organizations’ service areas. While community foundations come in all sort of shapes and sizes, there are a few near-universal characteristics:

  • Geographic Focus: Almost all community foundations are place-based grantmakers that define their mission through geography. A few define their mission through an identity.
  • Support for Diverse Causes: Unlike most other private foundations, community foundations generally represent a collection of permanently endowed and non-permanent charitable funds with a wide range of purposes. Think of community foundations as a conglomerate of charitable activities rather than a single-purpose institution.

Grant-seeking with Community Foundations

It’s impossible to generalize how community foundations make grants because practices vary significantly across the field. However, here’s one suggested method for improving your chances to secure a grant:

Step One – Do your homework: You can often get great insight by reviewing several common publications produced by community foundations: Their website, their annual reports, their newsletters, their audited financials , and their 990 tax return . As you review these documents, look for:

  • Specific grant programs
  • Stated areas of focus
  • Examples of grants made (for purpose and amounts)

Step Two – Engage program staff: Once you’ve done your homework and see some potential fits, you should next find a way to communicate with a community foundation’s grant program staff to get a lay of the land. Sometimes staff is willing to meet in person, do a call, or communicate by email. Sometimes community foundations offer info sessions instead of doing one-on-one communication. No matter how much homework you do, interaction with staff helps ensure a strong fit and an application that has a chance to succeed. Some tips on this interaction:

  • Staff is often NOT the decision-maker: Most community foundations utilize some form of volunteer committees to make decisions on competitive grants. No matter how well you connect with staff, keep in mind that they may not be the driver of decisions.
  • Time is a limited resource: Most community foundations do not maintain a large staff to avoid perceptions of rewarding themselves instead of nonprofits. This means that time is often at a premium. Being sensitive to this (both in how you engage with staff and whether your application is perceived to be relevant to their goals) will enhance your long-term credibility.

Step Three – Apply for a grant: Assuming you’re fully informed and see a strong fit, then it’s time to go for it. Assuming your community foundation’s process involves a written application, here are some tips:


  • Be Concise: Everyone loves telling their full stories, but keep in mind that you’ll be one of many applications often reviewed by volunteer committees. Deliver clear and efficient information that cuts to the heart of what they’re asking for.
  • Stay Focused: Answer the questions presented and within the requested word counts and formats. This sounds obvious but is a surprisingly common issue.
  • Stay Customized: It’s fine to cut and paste from other source materials you might have, but make sure you’re not over-generalizing because reviewers can tell.


Step Four – Maintain a relationship: If you got the grant, congratulations (remember to keep in touch with staff)! If you didn’t, use it as an opportunity to understand why the request was declined. In either case, focus on maintaining a productive relationship with the community foundation, staff since there will always be more opportunities in the future. Here are some relationship pitfalls to guard against:

  • Mistaking grant decisions as personal attacks: While passion is important, keep in mind that most competitive programs receive way more requests for funds than what is available. Put differently, there’s a better than 50/50 chance that you will NOT get the grant, and it doesn’t mean the community foundation doesn’t like you or your nonprofit.
  • Lobbying board members: Trying to get grants through your relationships with community foundation trustees is a penny-wise, pound foolish strategy – staff often view this as an end-around.
  • Lobbying donors: Like lobbying board members, leveraging your relationships with key community foundation donors, especially if it’s a negative context (“can you believe we didn’t get the grant?”) is considered a below-the-belt move.
  • Tunnel vision: While you may sincerely believe your nonprofit is the best and only solution to a problem, keep in mind that community foundations open their doors to everyone and may interpret your perspective as a lack of awareness within your own domain. Take the high road, always. Consider ways to partner with those that received grants and have alignment with your mission.
  • Over-staffing a meeting: Unless you have a conversation about it in advance, you should avoid bringing more than one other colleague with you to a meeting with a community foundation. Bringing a large group forces community foundations into more formality and works against relationship-building.

This is just a taste of what my colleague Jillian Rosen and I will cover in our upcoming May 16 webinar, Connecting with Community Foundations -- Your Partner Next Door. Join us to learn more!

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