Getting to maybe

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a charitable foundation in possession of a good fortune must be in want of new grantees. 

So, you’ve set a chunk of time aside for prospect research. You have the highlighter in hand, the coffee on desk, the 990s printed out. You’re reading about a foundation that looks to be a good fit for your organization based on its funding pattern, geographical location or other characteristic.

But the foundation’s guidelines state that they fund "preselected organizations only." What to do?

 Here are seven steps to get you to maybe.

1) Be realistic.

No matter what you do, often it's just not possible to get funding from the foundations that restrict their funding in this way.

Reasons behind the restrictions vary. The donor may have written a select group of nonprofit organizations into his or her will, and deviating from this list could undermine the terms of the will. Or perhaps a family has decided to be extremely strategic in its philanthropy, donating only to nonprofits that they know, like and trust (e.g., founded, volunteer with, etc.).

Rest assured, there is a reason for the rule – and behind the reason is the answer to the question of whether your nonprofit has a shot at funding. I believe it is OK for you, as a grantseeker representing a reputable nonprofit, to politely inquire with the foundation to learn if there is a potential fit. But you must go into this process with expectations in check.

2) Look for board connections.

Determining if their board members know your board members (or your staff members) can be the straightest line to funding. This part is easily done.

Compile a list of the foundation’s board members, identifying each person’s affiliations if possible (e.g., where the person works, what other boards they are on, where they live). The affiliations will help your organization’s leaders distinguish people with common names, or discover connections they would otherwise overlook. Of course, you’re most likely to discover connections when the foundation and your organization are located in the same community, or board members share communities of interest.

The job of finding board affiliations is a good task for an intern. Use LinkedIn, websites of local newspapers, WealthEngine if you have it and other such tools to figure out who these folks are.

If a board match is identified, work with your board member to set a strategy for approach. Keep in mind that if the foundation has professional staff, these staffers may be wary of the board-to-board contact (viewing it as a run around the guidelines). As the grants developer, you can try to develop a parallel conversation with professional staff of the foundation to let them know about the board-to-board outreach so the staff doesn't feel undermined. This can all be done with a light touch.

3) Consider asking the foundation’s grantees for advice.

If you already have a positive relationship with one or more of the foundation’s grantees, or if you're just a really bold soul, you could reach out to those grantees to ask for some insights or help making a connection. This is a logical, potentially lower-stakes strategy.

4) Contact the funder – if you’re sure it’s worth the risk and you’re ready for an unpredictable conversation.

A foundation’s 990 typically includes a phone number for the foundation. Depending on the size and structure of the foundation, the phone number might connect you to a professional staffer, to a board member, to an attorney, or even to the foundation’s accountant.

Calling a foundation that has declared itself to fund preselected organizations only is walking on the thin ice of grantseeking. The 990 that lists the phone number may be public information, but that doesn't mean that the person with that phone number relishes being contacted by prospective grantees.

If you decide you want to call that number, be prepared for the possibility that you're going to reach the foundation’s donor or board member at home, when they're sitting around in their pajamas, not wanting to hear from you.

Your aim is to make a connection and offer the foundation potentially helpful information and opportunities – and to avoid appearing pushy. Before you pick up the phone, check out direct mail writer Jules Brown’s super-brilliant “Donor in the Chair” post to understand how the person on the other end of the phone line may feel about your call.

Be polite, with the top objective to represent your organization well. Have brief bullet points at the ready to quickly summarize your case for funding and why your organization could be a fit for their interests.

Beyond the bullet points, you need to be ready for the conversation to go in any number of directions. You might be entirely rebuffed, or you might be asked to send an email or even a proposal with more information about your program.

(And by the way, in the cases when the foundation's 990 includes an email address along with a phone number, do consider sending an introductory email instead of calling. Email is less intrusive than phone calls but phone calls usually yield more complete or nuanced information.)

5) Take "no" for an answer.

So you made the call, or sent the email, and you learned that the foundation is absolutely not interested in funding your organization?

That’s great! They just gave you the gift of clarity and future time saved.

Write a contact report that explains what you learned and put it in your files or database. Documenting the results of your outreach is important, even when the results are disappointing.

6) Take "maybe" as a cue to make a deeper connection.

If the foundation that you’ve reached has indicated a potential interest in your organization’s work, but doesn’t want a funding proposal, put a strategy in place to stay in touch.

Start by figuring out a way to monitor activities of the foundation – setting Google alerts, getting on their mailing list, attending their events, etc.

At the same time, determine if there is an appropriate way for you to channel information about your organization to them.

Developing a funding relationship can take years, and it definitely takes patience.

7) If you get to “yes,” go with it!

If they do invite a proposal, by all means submit it. If the foundation representative gave you any advice about what to emphasize in the proposal, follow it.

Your cover letter should include a brief mention of the conversation in which the proposal was invited, including the name of the person you talked to and that person's specific guidance. This can ensure that your proposal doesn’t get screened out by another staffer or board member because… the foundation only funds preselected organizations!