How to Start a Foundation Stewardship Program from Scratch

Image of a thank you note

What does effective private foundation stewardship look like? Grand Valley State has a tightly-knit community – and here’s how they got there. Based on their experience, read 5 steps to get started, 5 steps to get your house in order, 4 ways to learn about the community, and 4 ways to make it personal.

Attending Academic Impressions’ “Corporate Stewardship: Demonstrating ROI” webcast recently, I was provoked to think more deeply about what private foundation stewardship would look like. This question has been critical to my work at Grand Valley State. After eight years, I’ve built a significant network, but that didn’t happen immediately; this is a tightly-knit community, and coming in from outside and forming that network took concentrated work.

Here is what I’ve learned along the way.

From Scratch to Steward: 5 Steps to Get Started

Here is how you get started in foundation giving:

  1. Call the foundations to verify addresses and names of trustees and giving officers. Nobody likes to get mail sent to the wrong person.
  2. Send thank you emails to the receptionists. They are called gatekeepers for a reason. You want to be able to peek over the gate.
  3. Send out introductory letters that show how you can help them. Position yourself as a concierge for the resources available through your institution.
  4. Set up 10-minute introductory meetings with a handful of the most influential giving officers. You want to learn about their giving strategies and plans for the future.
  5. Send hand-written notes that connects how your institution can help the foundation solve its problems.

5 Steps to Get Your House in Order

  1. Update your grants calendar. Most foundations meet quarterly. Get all of the grant deadlines into your donor database. Not fun, but there’s nothing worse than submitting the perfect request at the last minute.
  2. Review report requirements. If any report is overdue, submit it as soon as possible. You helped the giving officer cross something off her checklist.
  3. Submit brief update reports to every foundation that does not require annual reports.
  4. Make friends with anyone who has raised money from foundations at your institution. At Grand Valley, the Office of Sponsored Programs is a tremendous resource.
  5. Become the internal face of foundation gifts. At Aquinas College, the faculty sat in the back of the cafeteria for Taco Tuesdays. I would grab a $2 taco and listen to them talk about new projects and share new opportunities.

4 Ways to Learn About the Community

  1. Attending regular gatherings of business and community leaders. Here we have the Economic Club of Grand Rapids lunches that include interesting speakers and 500 attendees every two weeks during fall through spring. Every community has something similar.
  2. Taking classes on how to run nonprofits. At Grand Valley, our Johnson Center for Philanthropy offers excellent classes through their Nonprofit Services program. Learn best practices and see what gets supported by the major foundations.
  3. Joining nonprofit boards. I was a founding board member of the Kids Food Basket, on the board of the Jewish Theater, and a liquidating trustee of Community Counseling and Personal Growth Ministry. Kids, theater, and mental health. That’s a nice broad swath of the community I was able to network with.
  4. Attend major civic educational and advocacy events. I like to go to TEDxGrand Rapids every year and leave energized with great ideas.

4 Ways to Make it Personal

  1. Be their eyes and ears. My daughter participated in the “Believe to Become” program supported by a local foundation. I gave my impression of the program as a parent when chatting with the program officer at a community event.
  2. Go to their events. Nobody likes to throw a party with no guests. This can range from workshops to press conferences to open houses. Meet them on their turf.
  3. Support their interests. The Frey Foundation hosted a community event for the Earth University in Costa Rica in their offices. I made sure to attend because it is a fascinating initiative and I was already planning to visit the country.
  4. Really support their interests: I go to the fall fundraising dinner for the Community Foundation of the Holland/Zeeland Area every year because they provide scholarship support and I can meet major donors in the community.

Above all, listen. If you ever have the chance to hear what family foundations have to say about their work, try to go. While at Grand Valley, I have attended a couple family foundation conferences as a silent observer. I left with an appreciation for how passionate foundation trustees can be about giving their money away, and what they need from us to be successful.

Case Study: The Grant Writers Roundtable

I launched the Grant Writers Roundtable seven years ago as a way to engage foundations giving officers at a higher level. Instead of trying to guess their intentions, I would ask them to speak directly to the people who prepared many of the proposals that they had to review. There would be no ask, but the roundtable would build relationships and improve communication.

The concept has been a success from the first roundtable. With no membership fees or other costs, the roundtables meet every month at different nonprofits around town. By expanding the scope to promote best practices for grant writers and nonprofit executives, we have grown our mailing list to nearly 400 professionals. Attendance ranges from 10 – 20 people every month depending on the topic, weather, and if it is hunting season.

Foundations will speak to our group when they have a new staff member or giving strategy. They also host the roundtables to give our members the opportunity to see the foundation behind the scenes.

With only so many foundations with staff to speak to the group, our topics have expanded to include topics such as “Writing about Poverty,” “Death, Life, and Writing it Down,” “Next Generation Growth in Family Philanthropy,” “Working with Foundations to Merge Nonprofits,” and “How to Access Foundation Center Resources at the Local Library.”

The roundtable has met monthly in Grand Rapids. A group meets quarterly in the Holland and Muskegon communities on the Lakeshore of West Michigan. Another group in central Michigan met several times.

If you would like to learn how to establish a Grant Writers Roundtable in your city, feel free to contact me at I am happy to share best practices and my promotional materials as long as the concept remains free to nonprofit professionals.