If you scroll far enough down a grant-making foundation’s Form 990, you will find Part XIV, “Supplementary Information.” Section 2 of Part XIV is titled “Information Regarding Contribution, Grant, Gift, Loan, Scholarship, etc., Programs.” In this section, an innocuous-seeming little check box lurks.
The text beside the box reads: “Check here if the foundation only makes contributions to preselected charitable organizations and does not accept unsolicited requests for funds.” It’s a box ticked by many a foundation and one seen as an insurmountable obstacle by many nonprofits.
Furthermore, if you are a foundations officer, you’ve probably mailed a letter to a foundation, followed up by phone or email, and then heard: “We only give to preselected charitable organizations.”
This invites the question: how does one become a preselected charitable organization?
Some foundations that tick this box won’t talk to you unless one of their board members tells them to, but that’s not true of most. So, the no-nonsense answer to the above question: you become a preselected charitable organization by repeatedly getting in front of the foundation.
Foundations may say they only give to preselected charitable organizations, but that glosses over the question of how their current grantees became preselected in the first place. Answer: they got in touch with the foundation over and over (and over) again.
There are a few main ways to do this, all of which center on aggressive outreach. This includes mailing letters, following up with phone calls and emails, and meeting with a member of the foundation staff or board, if possible.
Mail the letter
My first piece of advice: if you see that box checked, ignore it. This may seem obvious, but if a foundation doesn’t know about your organization, you’ll never become preselected. Get the process started by dropping your Letter of Inquiry (LOI) or Meeting Request Letter (MRL) in the mailbox right away.
You can read more about crafting a strong LOI here, but, essentially, it should include your mission, vision, some highlights of your work, a note or two about goals, and a request to submit a proposal (or, in the case of an MRL, schedule a meeting).
Follow up like your life depends on it
Most organizations are far too timid about following up with foundations. After two, maybe three, follow-up calls, they cry uncle. If you want to become a preselected organization, though, this timorous approach isn’t going to cut it. You need to be more aggressive. Call and/or email two times per week for at least four weeks, and see if this begins to change your contact rate.
Remember that, especially for those that are staffed, responding to your requests and taking meetings is in a foundation’s job description. Even if that weren’t the case, your goal is to further the charitable mission of the foundation. You aren’t badgering them; you’re providing an opportunity for them to make the changes they wish to see in the world.
Lastly, don’t fool yourself into thinking that sending a letter means that it was received, opened, or read. Follow-up calls and emails are your opportunity to prod foundation staff into tearing open your envelope and seeing how your organization advances their mission.
It ain’t over till it’s over
“We’re only giving to preselected charitable organizations at this time.” There it is, the death knell for your proposal. Or is it?
Don’t let this statement—or any statement amounting to “we’re not interested at this time”—stop you from staying in touch with a foundation. Ask them if you can keep them up to date on your organization. Put them on non-solicitation mailing lists, and send them e-newsletters and your annual report. Then, in 4–8 months, reach back out. With evidence of your work’s impact in hand, a foundation is far more likely to declare you preselected.
Let me be clear: if a foundation is intent on only giving to preselected organizations, it can be hard to change their mind. Convincing them won’t happen in a matter of months; it might take years. That said, it is possible to win them over, and it’s worth the effort. Don’t miss out on valuable opportunities because you give too much weight to a tiny check box ticked without thinking when foundations fill out their 990s.
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