Let’s be honest for a second. We all love to get VIP treatment. In fact, we get extra excited when a door that was once labeled “No Access” is opened wide, and we are welcomed inside as an honored guest. Heck, if the door is bolted shut with a “No Trespassing” sign, we might even agree to forego VIP status and serve as a volunteer just to get a foot in the door.

What does any of this have to do with the nonprofit world or fundraising?

A lot in fact!

We get a lot of questions about how organizations 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 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 prospective foundation and pay special attention to the following information that can be found in their 990-PF:

  • Who have they supported in the past (and at what level)?
  • Do their geographic funding priorities match your service/impact area?
  • Do their areas of interest align with the service you provide?
  • Do their giving levels match your current needs?
  • Have they supported organizations/projects that work on the same issues as your nonprofit? (If so, how do you compare?)
  • Who leads the foundation, and is their contact information listed on the 990-PF (it should be located in the upper right corner of the first page, or check out section XV, Part II)?
  • Who serves on the board of directors for the foundation, and does your organization have a connection?

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 events that are hosted by the foundation (awards/recognitions, community awareness/philanthropy events, or fundraisers).

5. Be strategic, and try to make a connection! Send a letter, email, or try to set up a phone conversation with the foundation’s program officer/board chair and include the following:

  • Acknowledgment that you have researched their funding priorities/guidelines.
  • Specific reason why you believe your organization might be of potential interest/value and a fit for their current priorities.
  • Brief background on your organization (mission, services, impact data).
  • Request for consideration in upcoming funding cycles and/or specific information on how your organization might become eligible for consideration.
Pro Tip #1:

If you research 990-PFs and a foundation lists that they only fund pre-selected charitable organizations (this is usually documented in Section XV, Part II, be sure to compare the organizations they have funded for the past 3-5 years. This information can also be found on most 990-PFs towards the end of the document. If they have basically funded the same group of nonprofits for that time period, it is unlikely that you are going to get a foot in the door, or an ask on the table.

BUT, if there are a good variety of different organizations being funded every year, there is a real chance that getting in touch with the right ‘gatekeeper’ could produce an opportunity to submit a proposal.

Pro Tip #2:

There is a difference between only funding pre-selected charitable organizations and not accepting unsolicited proposals. Unsolicited proposals are usually online platforms where you can go take an eligibility quiz, and then if you pass, submit a proposal to a foundation. Think of processes like the Walmart Community Giving grants, Bank of America, etc. Anyone can go on and apply if they pass the eligibility requirements.

Foundations that say they don’t accepted unsolicited proposals very often mean that they don’t have an online process where anyone can just go apply. Folks need to go through the foundation or a gatekeeper of sorts, to gain access and permission to apply for a grant.

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.
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, it could be time to move on and explore donors who welcome your interest and requests for support.