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Keys to Winning Corporate Grants

By Bruce Ward, Executive Director, Continental Divide Trail Alliance

Across the country, thousands of trail organizations are working hard to build, maintain, and protect their recreation corridors. Their success depends on three critical components: Cooperation with local, state, and federal governments, "sweat equity" from volunteers, and financial support from private foundations and corporations.

Fortunately, the time is right for gaining these types of support. Downsized agencies and budget cuts have brought an increased emphasis on partnerships. Millions of Americans are recognizing the need to "give something back," and the private sector is recognizing the need to be a part of the solution.

For years I worked for the outdoor gear and clothing retailer Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI), in marketing and public relations. Probably the most rewarding aspect of the job was providing financial and in-kind support to worthy trail organizations. Sometimes it was difficult to decide who, among the many deserving clubs, should receive the highest priority for the relatively limited funds; sometimes it wasn't.

Successful Organizations Attract Sponsors

When an organization has established a track record, is conscientious about recognizing its supporters, and does what it says it will do, a reasonable, well-timed request has a good chance of succeeding.

The first donation I made in Colorado was a classic example of what it takes to be successful in soliciting support from the private sector. I had only been at the job for a week, spending most of my time perusing existing files and talking to store employees about local organizations. As I completed my informal survey, I realized that there was clearly one organization that the company must support, the Colorado Trail Foundation (CTF).

They had been successful in gaining extensive media coverage, developing numerous volunteer work projects, and in attracting the involvement of the store's employees. Moreover, the group's leader, Gudy Gaskill, was nothing short of a national trails legend. She was the first woman to serve on the board of American Hiking Society, a leader of hundreds of Colorado Mountain Club hikes, and an enthusiastic trail builder who served as the driving force in putting the 500-mile trail on the ground.

It didn't take long for Gudy to call to introduce herself and request a donation for their annual banquet. Needless to say, I picked out one of our finest backpacks and gladly donated it to the CTF. A week later I received a thank you note from Gudy and a press clipping from the event that mentioned the donation from REI. Thus began a long and mutually beneficial relationship that exists to this day.

Five Steps to Successful Grant Applications

1. Introduce Yourself and Your Organization
Nothing compares to a face-to-face meeting. Your enthusiasm and desire to personally meet with the decision makers will go a long way in gaining you the recognition necessary to be successful. Be considerate of your host's time; set up an appointment, be prompt, and don't overstay your welcome.

2. Establish a Relationship With the Company
Once you've introduced yourself make sure your contact gets on your mailing list (if you have one). Invite them to your events and projects, perhaps even to a board meeting. Show your appreciation for special events the company may be supporting, even it it isn't your group's cause.

3. Provide Special Events, Projects to Tie in with the Company
Special events and project provide a visible link between your group and the company. Almost no one wants to fund administration and overhead. Events and projects give companies visibility, increase consumer goodwill, and have measurable results (number of miles of trail built/maintained, number of people in attendance, newspaper, radio, and TV coverage, etc.)

4. Exceed Their Expectations
Nobody wants to be associated with a "dud." Do your best to bring in the crowds, build more trail than anticipated, and work hard at getting media coverage. It will all pay off in the long run.

5. Say "Thank you"
I was once associated with an organization that inadvertently forget to send a thank you for a grant. When the next request for funding went out, the donor company sent a terse response: "We do not provide additional funds to organizations that do not recognize our previous contributions." Awards, recognition in newsletters, and letters to the President/ CEO of the donating companies are the most obvious examples of ways to say thanks.

Bruce Ward, one of the founders of National Trails Day, is Executive Director of the Continental Divide Trail Alliance, P O Box 628, Pine CO 80470.

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