The grant world is competitive. It has only become more competitive in recent years. Private foundations are becoming increasingly “invite only” meaning that they “do not take unsolicited proposals”.
Does this mean that you should take them off your list? On the contrary! The fewer the open opportunities, the more proposals they receive. It makes sense to divert your grant winning strategy to taking time to be 'invited’.
Here are eight outreach strategies to get the invite.
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Connect Through Your Current Funders
The best method is asking your current funders to provide an introduction to the ‘invite-only’ organizations. It’s a small world. The funders know each other. Getting an introduction through someone that the ‘invite-only’ funder knows will give you a warm introduction.
Warm introductions are always better than cold introductions. It is worth taking the extra time to earn those warm introductions.
Here’s how we recommend this playing out in the real world. If the Murdock Charitable Trust, for instance, funds your organization, you would approach your program officer with the ‘invite only’ funder’s name and ask if the program officer has a relationship. If so, ask if they would be comfortable making an introduction to the invite-only funder.
Nothing is more validating to a funder than being introduced by someone already investing in your organization.
Use Your Funding Strategy
You can use the aforementioned tip even if you haven’t received funding from a certain grant agency. One tactic we teach in Grant Writing: From Start to Funded is to bring your Funding Strategy to the grant funders you are considering.
It can be strategic to share your Funding Strategy with prospective funders. You get to illustrate that you have a plan for funding your entire project. You can also show where you see their funder fitting into the “domino line up.” You should ask for the funder’s feedback if they agree with your strategy.
When you do this, you can ask for an introduction to any funders that are ‘invite-only.’ Remember, it’s perfectly okay to share a draft Funding Strategy. The hardest part is getting that list of 10+ grants down to the top 2-5! Let the funder you CAN talk with, help guide you.
If the prospective funder is willing to provide an introduction to the invite-only funder, this is a good sign for two reasons. First, they trust you and are willing to put their reputation on the line to make an introduction. Second, they like what you are doing but would like to see other funders get on board first.
Your Network is Bigger Than You Think
Quick pep talk. Having a healthy and supportive network is key for success in anything you do in life. Even if you are introverted, look for ways you can develop your network before you need it.
If you don’t like big group settings, that’s okay! Find small luncheon events to attend or reach out to someone (ideally also via a warm introduction) for a coffee date.
Aside from leveraging your own network that might have connections to that elusive ‘invite only’ funder, you should ask if your board members or organization leadership have connections.
Ask your board members and top leaders to think about which foundations and grant-making agencies they may have connections to.
If you find a funder that seems very connected to your cause, send out their board member and staff list to your leadership team to review. Often, someone with a connection to your organization only has to send an email or sign a cover letter for you to get a meeting!
Always Have a Project Overview Prepared
Let’s say you landed the warm introduction. Great! Now, how are you going to make the most of your limited window to connect with them?
The strategy we teach in Grant Writing: From Start to Funded is to prepare a one page overview ahead of time. Send this overview to the funder ahead of time so they have time to familiarize themselves with your organization, what you want to get funded, who you serve, and how much funding you need.
This is something we’re really passionate about! First, you communicate that you are prepared and respect their time. Second, it’s impossible to get on the phone and not start pitching yourself if you have to start from scratch orienting them with your organization. That’s not the point of this conversation. Third benefit, and there are plenty more, is that so few organizations prepare a project overview ahead of time and it will make you stand apart.
Go Meet the Invite Only Funder
Another strategy is to meet your funder by being in the same place at the same time. Good fundraising teams regularly research and attend events where key foundation staff and board members will be. These can be conferences, events, partner/like-minded agency dinners, workshops, or government meetings. When you get exposure, don’t be shy! Approach the funder like you would a major gift prospect. Simply get to know him or her on a human level and exchange contact information. Don’t pitch your project or organization at this time! Save that for later when you can have a sit down meeting. The objective here is to get contact information so you can request a meeting later. Small steps go a long way.
When you get exposure, don’t be shy! Approach the funder like you would a major gift prospect. Simply get to know him or her on a human level and exchange contact information.
Don’t pitch your project or organization at this time! Save that for later when you can have a sit down meeting. The objective here is to get contact information so you can request a meeting later. Small steps go a long way.
Remember to give first. What can you do to help this funder before you ask for anything? Bringing that mentality to everything you do will always yield better results.
Find their Contact Information and Reach Out
Google is a grant writer’s best friend. If you know you want to contact a foundation, but don’t have contact information, check out their website thoroughly or search for the specific individual you seek online. We often recommend meeting with a Program Manager or someone that handles projects to get valuable insight into what the organization cares about. With this information in hand, you are better prepared when contacting higher level leadership.
LinkedIn has become a means to connect with new professionals, though it is still less effective than getting people on the phone or putting information directly in front of them in an email. Make sure you keep your social media accounts very up to date, with professional resumes and photos and a wide network of recommendations. While we don’t generally use it to contact funders, we know it’s an important way for them to find information about us. We want to be easy to find and to always imbue the messaging that our work is meaningful and engaged in the community.
Use a Well Branded Program to Get an Invite
We have this weird thing about offering advice in 7-steps. It is never our intention but must be our lucky number! Our 7th bit of advice is playing the long game. The most effective way to get the invite, is to get the attention of the invite-only funder naturally.
Foundations are invite-only because they only want to bother with the best programs and services. They want to work with the organizations that are the most innovative and effective.
This is a blog post topic onto itself but consider these two ideas when you evaluate your organization and activities. First, does every step of your offering focus around who you serve? Check out design thinking for training and inspiration to make sure that what you do, truly makes the best experience for your beneficiaries.
Second, how can you create a 7-star experience for anyone that comes into contact with your organization? We borrowed the 7-star experience idea from Airbnb’s founder, Brian Chesky, in an interview you can listen to on here (go to minute 9). It is what we think about here at Learn Grant Writing all the time.
It takes a little getting the hang of, but if you let your creative juice flow wildly, you can come up with lots of low cost and free ways to make your organization exist on a whole new level. And THAT will get the attention of invite-only funders.
Use a Well Branded Program to Get an Invite
This strategy is only last because it is indirect. It is likely the most effective way to get noticed and to get traction with invite-only funders. Foundations are invite only because they only want to bother with the best programs and services. You can make yours the best with a stellar branding and communications strategy that celebrates what you are doing through traditional media and social media methods. Creating buzz can lead the honey to you.
Knowing someone is the best route, but in the process, make your program or project speak for itself!
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