The Dreaded Phrases of Grant Research

Have you ever been researching a foundation that you thought was a perfect fit for a program or project in regards to the priorities listed, previously funded organizations, the region of focus, dollars they typically grant, etc.? Then, you see those dreaded phrases: ‘We do not accept unsolicited proposals’, or ‘We only fund pre-selected organizations’.

I meet tons of people who have been grant writing for an organization, program, or project for a while who simply bypass these foundations and move on to their next prospect.

WAIT!!!!

That may not be the answer and you might be leaving behind ideal prospects in your rush to find applications that are ‘less work’.  What do I mean by ‘less work’? I mean foundations that have an online application process that doesn’t require much effort on your part. I mean foundations that tell you what they will support, when their cycle is open, and how to access the application in a nice neat package. These foundations are great! We all love them for their ease of access and information provided upfront. However, that doesn’t mean that the organizations with some boundaries and a few more hoops to jump through are not worthwhile and a good research prospect.

Recently I was asked how an organization could access private foundations that operate on a “by invitation only” funding model.  It is quite common for private/family foundations to pre-select organizations that they are interested in supporting.

That VIP model leaves many of us out in the cold wondering if we will ever get invited to the table for a conversation. How exactly can we transition our organization from invisible to invited status? 

The following tips might help get your foot in the door:

1. Research the private foundation and pay special attention to the following information that can be found in their 990-PF:

a. Who have they supported in the past (and at what level)? This information is typically found toward the end of the 990-PF.

b. Have they supported organizations/projects that work on the same issues as your nonprofit? (If so, how do you compare?). Try comparing multiple years of 990-PFs to get a good feel for consistency and history of giving. These resources are available for free online with GuideStar, Foundation Center, National Center for Charitable Statistics and other free sites.

c. Who leads the foundation and is their contact information listed on the 990? This information can be found on page 1 of the 990-PF or potentially on page 10.

d. Who serves on the board of directors for the foundation? This information is found on the 990-PF and potentially a foundation website.

e. Do they fund the same organizations every year. If so, this is a big clue that the truly DO only fund pre-selected organizations and they are the same ones annually. If you notice no real pattern to their giving, it is possible to get a foot in the door and get permission to submit a request.

2. Print out key information (especially names of board members and past/current recipients) and approach your board of directors or key supporters to see if they have a personal relationship with anyone on the foundation’s list.

3. If your board member/community contact has a professional or personal relationship with a foundation board member, ask if they can make a call/introduction on your nonprofit’s behalf.
4. Attend event’s that are hosted by the foundation (awards/recognitions, community awareness/philanthropy events, or fundraisers). Be strategic and try to make a connection!
5. Send a letter, email, or make a phone call to the foundation’s program officer/board chair and include the following:

a. Acknowledge that you have researched their funding priorities/guidelines

b. Specific reason why you believe your organization might be of potential interest/value

c. Brief background on your organization (mission, services, impact data)

d. Request consideration in upcoming funding cycles and/or specific information on how your organization might become eligible for consideration.

e. Thank the foundation for their dedication/support of organizations in the community and share how your organization would like to partner with them to accomplish shared goals.

If letters and phone calls go unanswered don’t immediately get your feelings hurt or throw in the towel. Consider searching for the foundation’s headquarters and paying a brief personal visit to request eligibility guidelines and begin the relationship building process.

Keep in mind that many of these private/family foundations do not have an official headquarters and only meet once or twice per year so patience is a virtue

Additional things to keep in mind as you research prospects:

1. Check out the total amount a foundation is giving annually. If they are only giving out $20,000, is that going to fit your need? Make sure you are pursuing the foundations that fit your need both in subject interest, location AND giving amounts.

2. Building Relationship is KEY to all fundraising, including grant writing. You need to be calling, visiting, or emailing foundations and building relationships with their program officers. Unless they have specific verbiage on their website or guidelines that state phone calls are discouraged, or something along those lines, build relationships!

3. Often times ‘Unsolicited Proposals’ simply refers to the fact that there is no online application process that is open to the general public. That’s not a bad thing, it just means an extra bit of work to get access to the application process.

4. Grant research and writing take time. Don’t rush it. Do the due diligence to build relationship and vet prospects.

At the end of the day, most of us only invite people we know to our most important social functions, so why should we be surprised or offended when a private foundation opts to limit their dollars to organizations they personally know and interact with?

Like everything else in the world of nonprofit development, relationships are the key! If your persistence with an “invitation only” donor doesn’t pay off, perhaps it’s time to move on and explore donors who welcome your interest and requests for support.