Dealing with Closed-Door Foundations

When first diving into a high-quality funder research database, you’ll probably feel giddy with relief. With only a few clicks you can find “go” and “no-go” indicators to flush out those grantmakers most likely to support your work. 

But relief will soon morph into disappointment as one synopsis after another warns that the funder does not accept unsolicited proposals. “It’s a ‘don’t call us, we’ll call you’ scenario,” said Barbara Floersch, chief of training and curriculum for The Grantsmanship Center in Los Angeles, Calif.

In a winter 2019 article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Bradford K. Smith of The Foundation Center (now Candid) stated that 70 percent of the more than 87,000 active independent, community, and corporate foundations in the United States do not accept unsolicited proposals. Between the foundations that have no interest in hearing from you and those that limit their giving to geographic areas you don’t serve, what at first looked like a cornucopia of possibilities soon looks like a haystack hiding a few needles. 

“Although there are good arguments against this closed-door approach and the issue has gotten a lot of attention, it’s likely to be a long time before nonprofits see real change,” said Floersch. In the meantime, she offers a few suggestions.

  • Identify foundation board and staff members, then try to find a liaison. Look for people you know who also know the funder’s representatives and are willing to introduce them to your organization.
  • Identify nonprofits that have received awards from the foundations, then reach out to them for help. They may provide suggestions and may possibly provide introductions.
  • If you have strong relationships with other foundations, ask those friends for advice. The foundation staff members you know may be willing to speak with their colleagues on your behalf. 
  • Show up at forums, conferences, and other events foundation representatives are known to attend. Network. Be prepared with a good elevator speech that lays out the issues and your organization’s effectiveness. Don’t ask for money. The point is to get noticed.

It’s much easier to find liaisons for funders in your own geographic area but stay alert to regional and national opportunities that could catapult your organization into radar range of foundations that are farther afield. 

Gaining entry into the world of closed-door foundations is more like courting major donors than developing grant proposals. While grant professionals may do the initial research, your organization’s board members and administrators may be best positioned to do the personal outreach. 

“The depth of your initial research is critical,” said Floersch. “You’ll only want to put this amount of effort into foundations that are especially significant or that are close-to-home and can be easily reached.” © Copyright 2020 The Grantsmanship Center.