Reaching out to foundations that have predetermined your organization is outside their area of interest can be challenging, and doing it wrongly can close doors forever. Private foundations are mandated by law to give away a certain percentage of their assets each year, but they can give their money how, when, and where they choose. That’s why some foundations can have a “give only to preselected charities” policy. It’s their money.

As fund-raisers we need to honor the wishes of these “walled-off” foundations. Yet, for the good of our organizations, we find ourselves searching for ways to form relationships with these “potential” donors in hopes of becoming one of their accepted few. As we attempt to span the gap between their giving policy and our need, we have to do so with integrity and delicacy. After all, we’re trying to build a bridge not burn one.

A major complaint I have heard from foundation officials over the years is that grant seekers are often either oblivious to a foundation’s established grant eligibility requirements or they ignore those guidelines. Those are both big mistakes.

So, what can you do when face to face with a wall built by a foundation to keep organizations like yours out? Is there a way you can make justified and meaningful contact with these grant makers and not violate their rules? The answer is yes. It has been done. How do you do this?

Use Direct Leverage of Key Stakeholder Associations

While some grant makers deal only with their favored, preselected charities, even refusing to accept proposals from others, you can be pretty safe in assuming that they make grants based on personal association. Like many things in life, finding a grant is often about who you know. Members of your own board may be closely associated with the decision makers at a walled-off foundation. In fact, you and such a foundation might actually share a board member. Your friends may be their friends. You won’t know until you find out.

First, compile a list of the “give to preselected/no proposals accepted” foundations, and the names of all of the staff, officials, and volunteer leaders you can find. Present those names to your organization’s leaders and others to see if they have connections which could help you gain a hearing for or at least provide an awareness of your organization. Then have individuals associated with your organization make informal contact/inquiries through their personal association with people from the walled-off foundations. The result may yield the potential for developing an organizational relationship, and do it without the foundations perceiving you as having violated their rules.

But, what do you do when such personal associations are not available to begin to wedge the door open?

Approach in a Unique and Respectful Way

One thing that you shouldn’t do and one of the things foundation officers really dislike, is send a letter that reads something like this: “We know your foundation gives only to preselected organizations, and that you do not accept proposals, but …”

It’s the but that annoys them the most. The grant seeker is seen as trying to work an angle—trying to “but in” if you will. It is the apparent disregard for the guidelines and rules, the attempt to solicit money in a way that appears thoughtless, patronizing, or offhand. “We know…but” is a seen as little short of a slap in the face.

Better to, with great care, send a simple one-page letter asking for clarification on the specifics of to whom and to what purpose the organization will make grants.

Such a letter validates your understanding and acceptance of the foundation’s policies, yet respectfully asks for clarification of its practices in support of those policies. The letter should read something like this:

“We recognize and appreciate that your foundation provides its generous support to preselected charities, as we have learned from your published guidelines. Please accept this note, not as a means for us to solicit funds, but simply as a letter of inquiry to respectfully ask the following questions:”

  • “What would it take to enable (name of your organization) to be considered to be on your list of preselected charities?” (From this you should at least get a sense of the type of disconnect, unless they are really throwing a polite but total smokescreen.)
  • “How often do you add new grant recipients to that list?” (You may find that they have a pretty stable list and that you would have to work your way up over a long time, if at all.  Or, you may find that on occasion they like to look for new opportunities, but you just haven’t connected yet.)
  • “With our pledge that we will not ask for money, would you be interested in learning more about (name of your organization) directly, with additional information we would be pleased to provide through an informal, information-only, meeting with you, or perhaps you may be interested in visiting us to see our organization in operation?” Also we would welcome any advice you might be in a position to give as to granting organizations that might be suitably aligned with our mission. (If they are open to a relationship, their response to this should help to let you know.)

Use one, two, or all three of these questions in your letter depending on your comfort with them and the knowledge you have about the foundation.

I always gave this type of communication about ten days or so to be in the hands of the recipients for a possible response, then if none came , I followed up with a phone call to ask the exact same questions—never deviating in the slightest from the strategy of the initial letter or its content.

Remember, this is not a communication about soliciting a gift. No matter how tempting it may be to stray from that promise to not solicit, to do so is to run the risk of poisoning that particular philanthropic well.


Is It Worth It?

Some might say, “Leave those grantors alone. They said no proposals are invited. They said they give only to preselected institutions, and we are not one of them!”

Maybe so, but things sometimes do change. A preselected institution or two, having received grants previously, could this or the next year not have available the types of programs and services favored by a grantor. And preselected, favored institutions that they may have been, it is possible that a grantee could very well fall out of favor with the grantor for any number of reasons. There just may be an opening for your organization.

So, there is always the time and the chance for that opening, and you could very well be there at that time.

The Strategy At Work In Real Life

This suggested exercise had me thinking about when I first met my wife, Joyce. It was at a party, and she was there with a date—a preselected commitment. Right off, I wanted to get to know her better, and I told her so. It was not easy to get a first date with Joyce because she had preselected interests, and was generally not accepting new proposals.

However, convinced that I had no initial expectation of a commitment on her part, she eventually did grant that first date. There was no mention of relationship or marriage from either party that evening. It was an information-gathering-only event. Information sharing led to further interest, then to involvement, and finally to investment. Relationship with a granting foundation determined to maintain its distance can be developed in the same way. Maybe not for life, but certainly for well into the future.

Whether it’s looking at a new potential grantor of interest, or looking at someone new in whom we are interested, from cultivation to courtship, even when the pursuit is not encouraged initially, we basically follow the same process. As you well know, nothing much about that process has changed over countless decades.