Best Practices

Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Insights: Insider Tips for Building Relationships with Foundations

Published Apr 16, 2019 by Rob Williams
Finding the Right Fit with Entrepreneurship and Foundation Grants

Foundations can be powerful allies and financial supporters of your community’s entrepreneurship ecosystem and entrepreneurial initiatives. According to research from the International Economic Development Council, more than a third of organizations in the economic development industry receive financial or in-kind support from a foundation.

At a recent SourceLink Quarterly Conversation, we asked foundation leaders and a grantee how ecosystem builders can develop dynamic relationships with foundations that invest in community economic development.

1.       Fit is the keyword.

Chris Harris, who manages Market Gaps grants at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, says “fit” is the key word. Does the proposed project fit into community? Is there a valid need? Does the community buy in? Will community support the effort long term? Do they have skin in the game? Can they generate local support? Is it measurable?

Pam Lewis, director of the New Economy Initiative at Community Foundation of Southeast Michigan, added that foundations strive to find the balance of what they are trying to accomplish, what the nonprofit is trying to achieve and how that aligns with what entrepreneurs need. The values of organization or program need to line up with foundation’s values.

2.       Build relationships in your community and with funders.

“Don’t discount the role of the community organizations and their role in the ecosystem,” says Lewis. “Partner with community organizations to create safe on ramps for entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs are looking for help to navigate the resources in their communities.” She adds, “Build relationships and build trust.”

Pam Bishop, vice president of economic development at the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF), looks for community readiness. Are grantees eager to jump in with a system-based approach   coaching system rather than activity-based approach? Are there champions to build this system-based approach? Are they ready to move beyond traditional thinking  and build a culture of entrepreneurship?

“Every community outcome is different,” Bishop adds. “Our work is an eye-opener for some towns and comes with challenges and exciting outcomes.”

3.       Engage in the process.

Get outside of the grant proposal/grant evaluation process. A pro tip from Chris Harris: Engage in back and forth conversations and know that pushback is ok. Ask questions, e.g., “Why are your metrics structured that way?” or “Why is your strategy structured that way?” That helps create a basis for a collaborative relationship.

Case in point: Lauren Pradhan, founding director and general manager of Grow North MN, benefits from working with Bishop and SMIF. Together they work to establish goals and creates solutions to problems. They created a statewide network of for-profit, nonprofit and civic sectors to focus on accelerating and maximizing resources for entrepreneurs specifically in food and agriculture. With The Resource Navigator® they now have more than 200 resource partners and created a one- stop shop resource to help entrepreneurs where they are on their journey.  With transparent communication they can align values of her organization and those of the foundation.

4.       Focus on outcomes.

“Provide strong clarity on problem/opportunity that you want to solve,” adds Bishop. “How are you advancing the dreams – long term – for the people that will ultimately benefit from the work you are doing?”

Pradhan suggests, “When working with foundations provide clarity for the problem and solution. You may not have all the answers, but by giving some sense of a plan and the steps that will get you there will elevate your success rate.”

5.       And be patient.

But do have patience, Harris adds. Foundations don’t move at the same speed as startups. You may face some rejection at first; however, it can build into something.

About SourceLink Affiliate Quarterly Conversations

SourceLink’s Quarterly Conversations are an exclusive benefit for affiliate members. Each quarter, the agenda include topics, speakers and discussions suggested by SourceLink communities to share best practices and collaborate with each other. Questions? Contact Dara Macan, Director of Global Business Development, dmacan@joinsourcelink.com.  


Rob Williams of SourceLink
Rob Williams is the director of SourceLink where he puts the “serve” in customer service, always available as support to SourceLink clients who are often the unsung entrepreneurial champions in their communities.