What To Do When Foundations Have Walled Themselves Off from Your Organization

What To Do When Foundations Have Walled Themselves Off from Your Organization

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 fundraisers 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 grantseekers 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 without violating their rules? The answer is yes.

Use Direct Leverage of Key Stakeholder Associations

While some grantmakers deal only with preselected charities, 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 you want to target, and the names of all of the related 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 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, without the foundations perceiving you as having violated their rules.

So, what do you do when such personal associations are not available?

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. A letter like this comes across as a thoughtless attempt to solicit money. 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 question 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 left at least ten days for this type of communication to be in the hands of its recipients, and then, if there was no response, I followed up with a phone call to ask the 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 there is a chance a place will open up: a preselected institution might stop providing the kinds of services and programs the grantmaker favors. Also remember that preselected grantees can fall out of a grantmaker's favor for any number of reasons. If you're there at the right time, that vacancy can be yours.

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 — whether it's for philanthropic cultivation or courtship — even when the pursuit is not encouraged initially, we follow the same basic process, which hasn't changed much over countless decades.