• Rachel Niemczyk

Cold-Calling Potential Funders: A Millennial's Guide

Updated: Sep 9, 2019

Person saying "Hi" on cell phone
Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

Talking on the phone isn’t a millennial's idea of fun, no matter what the reason for the call. When it’s something as important as a business call? It can be downright anxiety inducing. Unfortunately phone calls can’t always be avoided - especially when the potential funder you’re trying to research doesn’t have a website to help the process along. If you’ve researched a potential funder to the best of your digital capabilities, but can’t find the information you need, it’s time to pick up the phone and call them to learn more.

So how do you get through this nightmarish scenario? Below is my millennial approved, tried & true method for cold calling funders with grant questions. Whether you’re a millennial like me, or just find the process of reaching out to a funder daunting, it’ll help you get through with as little pain as possible and - dare I say it - even become comfortable making phone calls.


1. Look up their days/hours of operation. If the funder doesn’t have a website you may not be able to find this information, but if you can it will help you time when to make your phone call. Aim to either call the funder soon after they’ve opened or just after their lunch time. These are usually the time slots when funders are more likely to pick up the phone — which means you’ll have a better chance of speaking with a person instead of leaving an unanswered message and having to call again. If you don’t know these days/hours then do your best to guesstimate.

2. Write out the questions you want to ask ahead of time. Whether you get so anxious you forget what you were going to say or you have a tendency to ramble, keeping an outline of what questions you want to ask will ensure you get all the information you need without going off topic . . . and going off topic is always a possibility because the funder may say something that brings up questions you hadn’t thought of.

3. Stick to quick, fact-finding questions. Your goal here is not to build a relationship with the funder - it’s to find out if your organization’s goals and the funder’s goals are in alignment enough to consider building a relationship via grants. This is not the time or place for your nonprofit’s elevator speech so don’t give it. Instead, focus on questions like:

  • Do you still offer grants to nonprofits and/or individuals?

  • Can you tell me what cities, counties, or states are part of your geographic focus?

  • Do you still like to fund [insert program focus area] types of programs?

  • Are you currently accepting grant applications? If not, what is your funding cycle?

  • What is the process for applying for a grant?

  • What is the average grant amount your foundation funds?

4. Come up with (and write down) contingency questions to ask if things don’t go the way you’d hoped. In the best case scenario you’ll hear all the answers you’d like that will give you the go-ahead to potentially build a relationship with this funder. The reality is that may not happen. This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the end of your conversation though! You can still ask thoughtful questions that may help your nonprofit like:

  • Although right now is off the normal funding cycle, is there another off-cycle funding opportunity like emergency grant funds you have available?

  • Considering you no longer fund [insert program focus area] programs, can you recommend another funder who would be interested in funding [insert program focus area] at this time?

5. Create a quick introductory statement. Foundations come in all sizes. There are pretty good chances that the first person you talk with won’t be someone who can answer your questions. That’s why it’s important to have a quick, introductory statement prepared that you can comfortably repeat (possibly several times) until you get to the right person. Something like:

  • Hi! I had some questions about your grant process. Is there someone I could speak with who would be able to answer my questions?

6. Do a short meditation or breathing exercise before you call. This may sound totally ridiculous, but it helps! Taking 5 minutes or less to do some meditating will help calm the nerves that are inevitably building from having to talk to a stranger, and help you stay focused on your fact finding mission.

7. Remember that behind every foundation phone number is a person. A living human being who has emotions just like you do. Treat the person you’re speaking with politely and remember to include hellos, thank yous, and goodbyes. Trust me when I say you never know when your good manners will create a positive impression that pays off later on.

8. Don’t stress over any mistakes you make. Life happens and it’s totally fine to be nervous, stumble over your words, sneeze in the middle of a sentence, have a coughing fit, etc. If you do make some sort of mistake like that, just be honest. Say, “I’m sorry about that. I’m [insert reason ex. Nervous, have allergies, under the weather, etc.]. Let me start again.” Then continue where you left off. People are more understanding than not, and everyone goes through moments like that at one point in their career or another. It’s honestly not as big of a deal as it seems.

9. Summon your inner courage and make the call. You’ve done the research, figured out your questions, and prepared yourself mentally and emotionally, so it’s time to speak with the potential funder. Trust yourself and the work you’ve put into the process - you’ve got this!

10. Add lib if necessary. Sometimes you can get away with reading right off your script, sometimes you have to improvise a little. Think of this formula like the pirate’s code - they’re not solid rules, but more like guidelines. Be willing to add a little humor, make up questions on the spot, or answer brief questions on your nonprofit or program. Whenever you do have to ad lib, just remember short and sweet is key. It’ll save you from having to add lib more than you’re comfortable with and keep the conversation on track.

Congratulations! You’ve now successfully faced your fear and cold called some stranger to ask them questions. That’s something to be proud of! Take a few minutes to appreciate what you did, maybe go for a quick walk, get a snack, etc. Just get any remaining nerves out of your system so you can get back to work without feeling wired.


Cold calling potential funders isn’t fun, but it is an important part of the job that gets easier with time and practice. Have you ever cold called a potential funder before? Share your experiences in the comments below so we can all learn from each other and support each other with the (somewhat) weird realities of the nonprofit world.

Thanks for reading and I’ll see you next week with another article!

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