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Approaching a Family Foundation is like Having Dinner with a Family

Here at the Unfunded List we are always reviewing grant proposals submissions. A lot of the proposals we review were invited for submission by a Family Foundation. But how do you approach a family foundation in the first place? For many of the organizations we review, they are staffed with smart, talented, and hard-working young changemakers many of whom do not know the first thing about how to approach a foundation.

They lack key information in a number of areas as well. Something we detailed in a blog post last year.  This stands to reason. We usually don’t teach about Foundations or Grant writing in school. I’m confident that the majority of high school graduates in this country are graduating with a working knowledge of the Post Office. They can mail and receive letters, identify a postman or mailbox on sight, and tell you what a stamp is for. I am considerably less confident in their ability to tell you what a family foundation is or how grants are decided let alone how to approach a foundation. Which would be more useful for them to know about? Do you think?

Every family is different (which is kind of my overarching point), but basically getting a grant from a foundation is like having dinner with a family. I’ll now elaborate on the having dinner metaphor to a potentially annoying degree. 

To have dinner with a family it is almost always necessary to know the family. I’m sure there are families out there with an open door policy at dinner that allow or encourage strangers to walk right in, sidle up to the table and just start passing the gravy and scooping mashed potatoes. God bless these families, but they are unfortunately rare. In reality, if you were to walk into a stranger’s home and sit down to dinner, you would not be welcome. No dining consultant would advise this strategy.

A strategy preferable to waltzing right in is to get to know the family first. Identify a family member who has similar interests and build a relationship over time; do not rush the relationship. In time, if all goes well, you will eventually get an invitation to dinner – assuming this family eats. Perhaps you could even host your own dinner and invite them over first to build trust and show you are a great dinner companion. (I’m not saying you have to give a grant to the foundation first — this is a loose metaphor, but you can show them that you are a useful and relevant player in your field and that there is a benefit for them in having a relationship with an up-and-coming and promising nonprofit like yours led by a thought-leader like you). No one wants a dinner guest who just quietly asks for food, eats and leaves. Best to tell a few jokes or anecdotes. Make an impression and get yourself invited back. If you get invited back on several occasions, eventually you can start suggesting menu ideas or even make special requests like extra mustard or olive oil instead of butter. But you should remember that some families have strict dietary restrictions or ethical concerns about certain types of food. It is always a good idea to ask in advance if you are suggesting a specific type of cuisine. 

Pursue funding sources that work best for you

Family Foundation funding may not be the right fit for your nonprofit which could make approaching a family foundation a waste of your precious time. Like all things, developing personal relationships is a skill that takes practice and one that is not for everyone. Perhaps you might be more satisfied by some fast food (corporate funding), a quick trip to a food truck (crowd-funding), or a perfectly suitable meal in a cafeteria (government grants). Or you could cook your own meals (earned revenue). But it’s hard to argue with a nice home-cooked meal from a family who shares your vision for what the world might be. Families built the world we live in and families can fix it. Like I said, it may not be for you but there are over 50,000 family foundations in the United States and even more family-affiliated donor-advised funds, CRTs, CLATS, CRUTS, FRICS* and other piles of money. The total pile approaches one trillion dollars. 

To help the unfunded learn more about approaching Family Foundations and how to receive an invitation to dinner we produce a podcast called Open Door Philanthropy. On Open Door Philanthropy, we are invited into the homes and offices of some of America’s most elite philanthropists. Stay tuned to see what they offer me and where we get invited next. 

*Only one of these is made up. Can you spot the phony acronym?


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