5 Questions to Ask the Gatekeepers of a Private Family Foundation


Christian Postel


CEO of Lexington Leadership Foundation

Reviewed by:


March 18, 2024

Last Updated:

March 18, 2024

There are thousands of private family foundations excited about making good investments in impactful organizations like yours.

However, whether you discover them on Instrumentl or through your network, there are several key questions you need to ask before applying so that you can be on the same page and ensure a healthy ongoing relationship with the funder.

A case in point is a prominent youth organization that recently accepted a substantial million-dollar gift from a private family foundation. I’m close with the leader of the organization and called to congratulate him—but he sounded flustered. He wasn’t as thrilled as I suspected he would be.

When I asked why, he shared that while initially appealing, the decision to accept the gift has since placed him in an impossibly difficult position.

He now faces the daunting (and intimidating) task of navigating pressure from the foundation to alter their programming and priorities—any nonprofit leader's nightmare. Sadly, this crisis could have been easily averted if the right questions had been asked at the outset.

To help you avoid situations like these, I’m going to walk you through the 5 critical questions I always ask a foundation before applying. Mark them down. It will save you many future headaches.

Questions To Ask a Foundation Before Applying

“Wait,” you may ask. “I’m supposed to ask the foundation questions? Shouldn’t I be answering questions?”

Whether you’ve just gotten the green light to apply for funds from a private family foundation or you’ve got a meeting scheduled with the gatekeeper of the organization, the truth is that asking some key questions ahead of time will serve both of you tremendously.

Spoiler alert: These questions aren’t just about you and your incredible organization. In fact, these 5 questions are a way to show respect for the foundation and any potential investment they might make in your organization.

The reality is, great fundraisers shouldn’t be out to get—they’re out to give; their desire should be to provide a great return on a foundation’s investment in their organization.

It's essential to set this mindset before diving into the questions.

Aligning with funders
The sweet spot where everybody wins

You're not vetting a foundation to determine if they'll dispense funds like an ATM machine. You’re engaging in a dialogue to define a potential relationship. They don’t want to go on a blind date any more than you do, even if you both think each other looks great online.

It just so happens that by asking these five questions and prioritizing the foundation's mission over your organization's interests, you not only serve the foundation but also guide your own decision-making process effectively.

These 5 questions will serve as building blocks for a meaningful connection with a foundation that goes beyond monetary transactions.

The 5 questions to ask a funder
Don't pursue a funder or accept an award without aligning on these questions

#1. What Are You Passionate About?

When pursuing funds from a private family foundation, it’s important to remember you’ll be championing their cause just as much as they’ll be investing in yours. These relationships are not transactional, they ought to always be symbiotic.

When nonprofit leaders overreach by pursuing foundations whose passions don’t completely align with their mission and vision, the cost of the long-term consequences far outweighs the benefit of any short-term gains.

Afterall, nonprofits are not like sunflowers; the more fertilizer they receive, the more vibrant they bloom. They’re more like orchids—delicate and sensitive to fertilizer—requiring a healthy balance of nutrients to flourish. Too much, or the wrong type of fertilizer can cause their roots to wither, but with the right fertilizer, they thrive.

Asking a foundation about their passions will help clarify whether their fertilizer will help your organization thrive or potentially lead to withered roots.

By recognizing and aligning with the evolving passions of private family foundations, you position yourself not only as a strategic partner but also as an advocate for their mission. This proactive approach will foster mutual understanding and lay the groundwork for ongoing collaborative work, regardless of whether they’re a great fit to fund your organization.

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#2. What Do You Want Your Legacy To Be?

Chances are, there are programs and projects close to your heart that feel distant due to current priorities. You're not alone.

By allowing representatives of a foundation to articulate their legacy aspirations, it opens doors to discuss funding priorities that might not exist on paper or online.

Generous givers understand that how they want to be remembered defines how they act today. They’re continually giving thoughtful consideration to the impact of their giving and how it aligns with what they desire their legacy to be.

Exploring this question may reveal uncharted territories for a foundation's philanthropy and could unveil untapped opportunities. When you engage in a discussion about legacy, you connect on a deeper level of understanding and further explore shared values and vision. After all, legacy gifts are aptly named—they breathe life into big projects.

Asking about legacy is a great way to clearly identify alignment between a foundation and your organization, and it has the potential to unlock incredible funding possibilities; serving as a worthwhile investment for the foundation and a growth opportunity for your organization.

#3. How Do You Prefer To Be Involved in the Projects You Fund?

Let's clarify: giving is involvement; without it, projects wouldn't come to fruition.

However, understanding a foundation's preferred level of engagement is crucial. Clear expectations lead to mutual benefit for all parties involved. Unclear expectations may lead to undue influence from foundations, diverting attention from your mission—like what happened in the scenario faced by the youth organization mentioned earlier.

Some private family foundations prefer active involvement in their investments, which can be highly beneficial if aligned with your organization's goals. However, it's essential to establish expectations before funds are committed, and you won’t know until you ask.

This proactive approach safeguards all parties involved.
For instance, if they express interest in a board seat, it could present either a significant opportunity or a potential concern.

On one hand, they could become an incredible addition to your board, opening an untapped network of people to invest in your organization’s vision. On the other hand, without clarifying involvement on the front end, there’s a risk a foundation’s presence, especially on your board, could shift your organization’s priorities toward their own interests more so than those of your organization.

In such instances, seeking trusted counsel can help navigate any uncertainties without compromising your organization's integrity.

#4. Has Anything Changed Recently in Your Funding Priorities?

While the answer to this question may have surfaced during earlier discussions, it's not always a given.

Private family foundations might harbor newfound passions or interests that haven't yet been reflected in their funding portfolio. Directly asking may reveal that they recently invested in projects that didn't yield the expected results. Or they failed to ignite the anticipated enthusiasm they felt at the onset.

This question presents a valuable opportunity to reference their website or any relevant information that sparked your initial inquiry, ensuring your conversation remains informed and purposeful.

The Walton Family Foundation, for example, was established to focus on supporting charter schools and improving K-12 education. They’ve since funded millions for environmental sustainability, protecting natural resources, and renewable energy according to their financial reports.

The reality is, 990’s don’t always tell the whole story. Give the opportunity for someone at the foundation to tell you what they’re currently passionate about and take good notes.

Side bar: You can review a funder’s giving history using Instrumentl. The platform crunches their 990s to reveal key giving trends. One trend the platform reveals is the giving by NTEE code. You can search any foundation and see what causes they’ve supported each year.

#5. How Do You Measure the Success of the Projects You Fund?

One of the pivotal factors in deciding to move forward with a new funding partner lies in the alignment of outcome-sharing practices. Measuring what matters to your organization, and not deviating too far from it, is critical.

Many nonprofits, particularly those reliant on state and federal funding, fall into the trap of pursuing resources without considering the expense of measuring what doesn’t matter to them.

For example, if your organization’s after-school program prioritizes math and science, but a foundation demands reading level assessments twice a year, consider the trade-offs and your team’s capacity for emphasizing reading and additional tutoring services. If accepting funds entails incorporating new metrics into existing programs, it's crucial to evaluate the magnitude of its impact on program execution and weigh it against the opportunity cost.

When inquiring how a private foundation gauges project success, you're signaling your commitment to operational excellence.

Strategic nonprofit leaders turn down funding opportunities because they recognize the causal connection between outcomes measurement and mission creep. If the funding fails to advance your mission or increase impact, why would you accept it?

Funding should enhance your goals and help you fulfill your organization’s vision; it should never force you to deviate from your mission.

Asking a private family foundation how it measures the success of the projects it funds safeguards your organization against mission drift and helps your team maintain operational focus.

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With That Settled, Are You Ready To Apply For That Grant?

To become a valuable investment for a foundation, prioritize asking the right questions.

Bring a genuine curiosity to understand people rather than solely seeking funding information. The ability to cultivate a transformative partnership hinges not just on the answers you receive, but on the intentionality behind the questions you ask.

By approaching interactions with sincerity and a desire to learn, you lay the foundation for building meaningful, mutually beneficial and high-impact relationships.

Investing time in understanding a foundation can yield significant returns for both parties while simultaneously helping you prevent mission drift.

To continue growing your skills in building relationships with funders , check out our webinar with Jenni Hargrove, podcast host and charitable marketing coach, where she unpacks 4 tips for building relationships with corporate giving. Her tips are widely applicable to all funders.

And if you’re ready to scale up your nonprofit’s grant strategy, sign up for a 14 day free trial of Instrumentl where you can find, track, and manage grants across the entire lifecycle.

Christian Postel

Christian Postel is the CEO of Lexington Leadership Foundation. He is well-versed in managing a diverse nonprofit organization with multiple programs and projects. He brings a wealth of experience to any nonprofit professional working to build a fundraising strategy.

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