Invite Only Grant Funders: How to Actually Get Noticed in 2023
You’ve got your project, proposal, and passion all in alignment. Now all you need is supportive grant funding. You’ve found many historic funders of large donations in your local area and specialty!
It turns out there is a caveat: every potential funder’s website you go to is an invite only funder. What does it even mean and what do these funders want to see?
In this post, we’ll answer all your questions around invite only funders, teach you how to get invitations from these funders, and tell you what mistakes to avoid making when approaching invitation-only funders.
What is an Invitation Only Funder?
Invitation only funders are organizations or foundations that have limited their applicant pools to only those who they have asked to apply for their grants.
There are many ways these grantmakers may introduce an invite only process for their eligibility cycles.
For example, these grant funders may only allow previous applicants another opportunity to apply. Or, some funders only allow new applicants with very restrictive demographics (like serving this number of people in only part of the state with only this one purpose).
Still some other funders only allow new, up-and-coming projects that haven’t yet tied allegiance to any other funder.
There are many different types of invitation-only funders but don’t let this discourage you! These funders each have the same goal in mind which is to find the most perfectly-aligned candidate for their funding. When you find a good fit, you can usually stay comfortably there knowing that you’re exactly what they were looking for.
Why Do Foundations Choose to Implement Invitation-Only Grant Programs?
Why would a funding organization have to become picky about who can get their attention? While it may look like the organization is acting less generously or more selectively, it’s most likely that this organization is simply trying to optimize its resources, time, and funds just like your own nonprofit!
Too many successful projects in recent years
In recent years, the foundation may have had too many successful projects that received a lot of media attention and now many more organizations want in on that success (and generous funding).
There’s no way the grantmaker could filter through all potential eligible clients amongst the vast sea of hopeful but ineligible maybes. Viable candidates would be lost in the time-suck of declining irrelevant or unprepared proposals.
In response, the foundation has had to put a more restrictive system in place before they have their staff start reading and considering put-together plans. In this way, your plan is more likely to be seen because it is thought-out and intentional instead of a random request for money based on a news story.
A great example of this is the Harder Foundation which has, since the 1970’s reached out only to “environmental and conservation organizations that work to achieve long-term protection of public forests and wildlands, rivers and watersheds, and nearshore marine ecosystems and estuaries” of their choosing.
Specific areas are of interest
It’s also possible that the organization has increased its funding for specific types of projects that have been successful in the past. This can be an easy “in” because if what you’re doing looks like what they want to fund that sort of project again, you can get an invitation just by being in the right place at the right time with the right plan.
A final reason that invitation only could be happening is because the foundation wants to fund the exact same projects again. Imagine being in that spot! Because the organization wants their funds to be spent wisely and because the current recipients are churning out all the right successes and data, this relationship will stay steady until one or both agencies need more or less funding.
This would be harder for you to break into because these cases usually are exclusive.
Working with invitation-only funders can be thought of as getting past the initial stage of grant applications. Compare this to a run-of-the-mill governmental grant: usually, you turn in an application and wait to see if you’ve made it to the Request for Proposal (RFP) or the second tier of grant application process. With invitation-only, getting the invitation is like advancing past the first stage.
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Invitation-only funders are not always as exclusive as they may seem. Getting noticed from the funder when you’ve already got their attention would be best and easiest for you. But what do you do when you haven't yet caught their eye yet? How do you get in their line of sight?
The best way to open the door to invite only funders is to have your community hype you up! Here are a few quick ideas for getting your community involved:
Have constituents write reviews of how your nonprofit has impacted the community.
Create a Google review page of your services.
Hold community events and invite the local news to showcase some of your latest projects and initiatives.
Send invitations to these funders and other powerful community organizations to your events, ceremonies, celebrations, and big plans.
Instead of tooting your own horn in a letter of interest, let your community do the talking about your organization’s successes.
You also can make casual contact with the invitation-only squad by interacting with its current grantees and supervisors.
Ask real questions about how you can get an invitation for the next cycle in a polite and direct way. You and your organization could put yourselves on the map of funders by reaching out authentically without scheming to please them just to get to the money (see more in the DO and DO NOT sections below).
The grant maker’s current grantees might have inside information or the need to collaborate and expand. You never know how the branches of private funding might grow your way.
See for example below the map of past grantees for Greater Good Charities. There are 326 past grantees in 2020 alone.
How Do You Approach Foundations that Do Not Accept Unsolicited Proposals?
First, find out how much the foundation really “doesn’t accept unsolicited proposals.” Is this a hard-stop (as in there is no way to communicate with them at all) or are there ways you can open the door for invite only funders?
Is there an email address to contact them with questions? That could be a very-slightly open door to start communication with them and genuinely find out from the source how you could become a VIP in this or the following year’s funding cycle.
Is there a contact page with board members and their other organizations and projects? Making connections with these people could be an “in” to letting them see you, your organization, and what you’re capable of. It also could be empowering to get them on your team (and website) as supporters of your cause. Do this genuinely. Find out what attracts them to their roles and their decisions.
Decide who could help guide you into the positions of power that their organizations currently hold (if that’s your goal). With or without their funding, this network could enhance your organization for groups and foundations you didn’t even know were looking your way.
Here are some things to do when making contact with potential funders, whether or not they are invitation-only:
1. DO get all your ducks in a row for your project.
Your paperwork, brochures, website, and any affiliate media should be top-notch before you make contact with anyone, especially potential funders. Try to look really good on paper, as they say.
Publish your records of success on your website. Make your website look really professional and inviting. In the eyes of most funders, “I’m going to do that next” is something they don’t have time for or interest to follow-up about. It’s better for you to look like who you want to be from the first introduction.
2. DO network with other organizations with the intention of growing your infrastructure.
Funding is great but limited between you and the benefactors. A good reputation is priceless. If your nonprofit is being talked about and encouraged through more than just your own funding channels, you’ll be more likely to hit the jackpot with an unsolicited invitation-only invitation from other funders (maybe even the ones you didn’t have on your radar).
3. DO know your limits.
Spending all of your resources trying to shift into what you think the invitation-only funder wants might not help you catch their attention and it may make you look incapable of actionable plans.
Your organization will become inauthentic and ineffective if your goals and project emphases are constantly changing with each application and your reputation will become that of a seeker instead of a reliable force for good.
4. Connect with program officers as often as possible.
Often times, connecting with program officers can be more effective than board members because these individuals are usually the front-line staff who are seen as the content-experts, have extensive backgrounds as researchers within the topic or have worked directly in the community and could be very well connected. Many times, program officers are the most receptive to having conversations about a cause and the sector, and could lend some helpful tips for your grant proposals.
Pro tip: Look for foundations with program staff. It's often a very good indicator that the foundation is invite only and proactively searching for their own grantees because they want an expert in the field to help guide their funding strategy.
3 Mistakes to Avoid Making When Approaching Invitation Only Funders
Here are some simple, hopefully obvious things not to do when contacting invite only funders:
1. DO NOT send over your LinkedIn profile with your professional life and status in an attempt to impress the potential funders.
Do not blindly connect with board members on LinkedIn without ever meeting them. If your project is not the highlight and focus of your LinkedIn profile, trying to prove your worth to funders will backfire.
On that topic, don’t connect on Facebook, Instagram, or other personal social media channels unless this is explicitly welcomed by the funder. In most cases, it’s not.
2. DO NOT mail an actual letter to the physical address of the funders with an unsolicited proposal.
If you do this, you might find yourself on an unofficial list of non-compliant candidates. At the same time, don’t randomly send proposals to the contact email on the website.
Instead, use any contact information to make contact, ask questions, make a connection that will get you closer to an invitation.
3. DO NOT give up!
Your growing reputation and dreams shouldn’t burst just because you haven’t gotten your invitation yet. As soon as you're up-and-running from a strong foundation of practices within your organization, you will soon have the privilege of accepting and declining your own audiences.
One of the most important things you can do when building your grant pipeline is to continue showing up to bat. If you strike out on your first go and give up, you’re potentially leaving thousands of dollars in funding off the table!
Example Email Script for Contacting Invite Only Funders
Below you’ll find a potential email template to an invite only funder you might use if the funder allows and is open for you to contact them with questions or interest. Sending a variation of this invite only funder email template can potentially open the door when done consistently.
If the funder’s website explicitly says, “invitation-only, no soliciting,” please don’t solicit them. It will only backfire!
If the funder outlines a very specific letter of interest format, follow that exactly.
Although [Insert your organization] was not invited to apply for your generous offerings this cycle, we would like to ask how we might become eligible for an invitation in the future.
Because [Insert your organization] is currently [What stage are you in? Searching for funding? Looking to expand? Establishing in a new community, etc], we are eager to make relationships with community leaders like [Funder].
How can we begin a conversation about what you’re looking for and what we offer?
Briefly, our organization, [Share impact] is aligned with your [Funder’s] desired outcomes of [Look up goals and actually quote one]. For [# of years], we have provided [Services, etc] to [Population, community, etc]. Our success is seen [Share your nonprofit’s results, data, community impact, etc].
Based on your history of funding and support on your website, we would be honored to be considered for an invitation towards partnership for our next project, [Your next project].
Please let us know what the best way to meet with you could be.
Bear in mind:
It’s very important that you reach out to exclusive foundations like you would any potential funder: with tact, respect, and a certain level of ask.
That is to say that you are requesting an amount of money to potentially improve a situation in your community and it is crucial that you do so from a place of compassion, goodwill, and growth instead of arrogance and entitlement.
It’s okay if you’re angry about the status quo and are motivated to change it. But, the status quo will not change if you show your anger to the funders who could help your organization make the difference you’re craving. Their exclusivity could have been justified for many reasons but preventing nonprofits like yours from being able to make positive change isn’t one of them. Treat all funders like they want to help because they definitely do!
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How to Track Your Invite Only Funders in Instrumentl
If you’d like to add invite only funders to your grant pipeline in Instrumentl, it’s as easy as checking off a single box.
From your Tracker, click the “Add New” button.
Find your funder and grant opportunity (or create one), and then check off the “Invite only” box.
Select the project you’d like the grant to be placed, as well as any other relevant information.
Hit “Save”, and you’re done!
Your invite only opportunity will not be tracked with your other saved grant opportunities in Instrumentl.
Wrapping Things Up: Cracking the Code to Invitation-Only Funders
So now you know that when you come across an invite only funder, it isn’t necessarily elusive or impossible.
With a little elbow grease, you could find your grant proposal in their approved file sooner than later.
Remember that your project, grant proposal, and passion are aligned and you can take that triple threat to bat until you're funded. You're up next and invitation-only funders don't have to strike you out.
Take a second, strategize, build up your network, and look towards the funders who want to open up a dialogue with you. You’re closer to funding than you think!
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