Open the Door to “Invitation Only” Grant Funders

Is the door closed to a proposal? Don’t be discouraged! Build a strategy to open the door. 

When you throw a party, you don’t open it up to the public. Instead you invite those with whom you share a connection, a history, or a mutual interest. The people who lead a private or family foundation aren’t so different.

In fact, more and more funders institute “invitation only” grant application policies. Based on recent data from Foundation Directory Online, of nearly 100,000 independent, corporate, and community foundations in the US, only 28% accepted unsolicited proposals.

Though frustrating to nonprofits, this closed door approach serves a practical purpose for foundations: it limits the number of grant applications requiring review and positions a funder to only consider nonprofits that match to their preferred sector, geographic area, or program focus.

The good news is that a door that seems closed can sometimes be opened. The key is building a relationship. Follow these suggestions to establish a connection that can yield a warm invitation to apply for grant funding.

Make a connection 

When cultivating any relationship, an introduction can work wonders. Gather a list of trustees and staff from the “invitation only” funders you have identified. These individuals can be found by researching foundations via funder websites or the Foundation Directory Online database.

Share these lists with your organization’s own board members and key staff to discover whom they may know. Can they make an introduction? If you are fortunate to get a phone conversation or meeting with a foundation representative, your goal is to briefly communicate how your organization’s mission and goals align to the foundation’s and to explore the funder’s potential interest in learning more. See our complete tips for having a fruitful conversation with a prospective grant funder.

Cross paths…on purpose 

Once you’ve made a list of key foundation contacts who you want to meet, look for ways to intersect with them. Foundation leaders often attend and speak at conferences and seminars. Seek them out, introduce yourself, and ask if you might trade business cards and keep in touch. This is not the time to ask for a gift, but instead a first step in building a relationship. Follow up in the coming weeks or months with a think piece or literature connecting your organization to something the funder cares about and ask if you might approach them with a formal request.   

Invite, inform, and ask 

Make it a part of your nonprofit’s practice to review your programs, events, and offerings at least quarterly to determine which are the most powerful platforms for “friendraising.” Consider your list of desired foundation contacts and send an invitation or ticket to the activity or event you suspect will match their interest. This kind of invitation is especially effective if it comes from someone they know. Ask a board or staff member who will be recognizable to the funder to embellish the invite with a personal note.

After a foundation leader attends your event, following up to inquire about a proposal will be a natural next step. 

Seek peer advice 

Search a foundation’s list of recent grant recipients. If an allied organization has recently received funding, reach out to ask how they established the connection. While grant seeking is competitive, most colleagues will understand that foundations often have diverse funding interests and will trust you to build a relationship based on your organization’s unique programs and services. Incorporate the feedback you receive from your peers into your cultivation strategy.    

Utilizing these techniques, a savvy nonprofit leader will pivot from the perception that an “invitation only” funder has a permanently closed door and will instead take proactive steps to artfully nudge it open.  

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