Nonprofit organizations seeking new funding sources are often confused and frustrated when they encounter foundations that accept proposals by invitation only. This is not an uncommon policy, and foundations of all sizes and viewpoints utilize this practice.
The door may be fully closed, as is the case with the Mazda Foundation which cautions, “Grant applications are by invitation only; there is no open application period.” Other foundations, however, leave the door ajar. The Mellon Foundation, for example, tells prospective applicants, “Mellon only accepts proposals by invitation. If you have not received an invitation and are interested in funding from Mellon, you can submit an inquiry,” but also warns that “only a small number of inquiries are invited to submit a proposal.”
Still others may bar letters of inquiry or grant applications only in certain issue areas or for limited periods of time. In 2019, Peak Proposals, which helps nonprofits identify potential funders and prepare grant requests, observed a “pattern of foundations moving to an invitation-only application process.”
There are many reasons both large and small funders choose to operate this way. Even foundations with published guidelines continue to receive applications outside their funding priorities or geographic limits. Eliminating unsolicited requests not only reduces the administrative burden on foundation staff, but also addresses the concern that nonprofit applicants are spending an inordinate amount of time preparing full proposals that will not be entertained.
Other foundations prefer to base their grantmaking on internal research, funding organizations working in their core areas of interest that have been identified by their program staff. This allows funders to build long-term relationships with those grantees that are demonstrating significant impact. New grant applicants are most likely to be introduced to the foundation through those relationships. The Gates Foundation employs this practice, for example, noting, “As we learn which bets pay off, we adjust our strategies and share the results so everyone can benefit.”
Although critics of the by-invitation-only practice contend this may — deliberately or not — reduce a funder’s ability to address equity and inclusion, the Satterberg Foundation is utilizing it to increase its accountability and responsiveness to some 300 organizations focusing on those issues in Washington state, California and Arizona. Instead of accepting unsolicited proposals, Satterberg is providing those foundation-identified nonprofits with multi-year, general operating support.
A limited-life foundation is likely to eliminate an open applications process as it approaches the end of its grantmaking so it might concentrate its remaining resources on the sustainability of longstanding grantees addressing its primary focus area(s). The McCune Foundation of Pittsburgh, for example, announced in July 2021, “As the McCune Foundation approaches its planned October 2029 sunset, we will no longer accept unsolicited applications. Moving forward, the Grantee Portal will be available only to existing grantees.”
Even existing grantees, however, are cautioned that the foundation will not entertain requests in three areas: capital campaigns, ongoing program or operating support and expanded operations, “unless those expansions are directly related to the core mission of the organization, and expand revenue-producing opportunities well into the future.”
It’s not surprising that nonprofit organizations are frustrated by funders who adopt “by invitation only” policies, and the internet is filled with advice on ways to circumvent these limits. In the case of foundations that are spending down, my experience suggests there is no “wiggle room” here. They are typically not looking to start new relationships, but rather are focusing on ensuring the capacity and sustainability of their existing grantees to fulfill their missions.
If the foundation in question is accepting letters of inquiry, then the door is certainly open for you. But before writing and sending that letter, make sure you are improving your chances by completing the following tasks:
- Review the foundation’s website to acquaint yourself with its mission and values and learn whether they align with those of your organization.
- Check the website for grant guidelines, including geographic priorities or restrictions, to be sure your organization is eligible for funding.
- Review the foundation’s most recent 990-PF available online to be aware of its current grantees and how your organization might enhance and strengthen the work already being done.
- Include the results of your research in your letter to indicate why you believe your organization fits the foundation’s strategic priorities.
- Provide a brief summary of your organization’s mission, services and impact.
- Remember this is not the time to request a grant, but do ask how your organization might be considered for support in the future.
If, however, a foundation is not inviting any form of communication, I would be wary of the various “end-run” suggestions offered online. Asking one of your board members to ask a foundation’s board member to make an exception to the rule can be more awkward than helpful and may certainly backfire, for example. Your goal is to gain the attention of the foundation’s grantmaking staff to the content and value of your work.
This is where your work in marketing and communications will pay off. If you produce a newsletter, add the foundation to your list of recipients. Beef up your social media presence with excellent content (including any news coverage you have received) and connect with target funders there. Attend events where you are likely to cross paths and introduce yourself based on common interests. Follow up on this opportunity by sending relevant materials your organization has produced. If your current donors routinely highlight grantees on their websites, make sure you are providing up-to-date information about your work and its impact.
There is no guarantee, of course, that these efforts will result in an invitation to submit a proposal. But you will have embedded in your organization some excellent practices that may bear fruit with other “by invitation only” funders down the road.
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