Family foundations comprise the largest segment of the private foundation sector, a sector that grew by an estimated 7.3% to $75.86 billion last year, according to Giving USA 2019: The Annual Report on Philanthropy for the Year 2018. Foundation giving represented 18% of all 2018 charitable dollars, which is unprecedented, both for the dollar amount and for the share of total giving.
Approaching a family foundation requires a personal connection. You can’t just send in an unsolicited letter of inquiry or grant request; no one will read it. Your Board may have the ability to positively influence the grant process.
- Identify connections among your Board members. Someone on your Board may have a relationship with a funder that can open doors. Gather as much information as you can about the foundation and its staff and leadership, and engage your Board to help you build a relationship with the foundation. Maybe a Board member goes to church with someone who sits on the Board of a family foundation? Or maybe they are neighbors? Ask whom they know and how they know them.
- Ask for an introduction. If possible, have that Board member join you for an introductory meeting with the funder. Assure your Board member that the purpose is to help you open a door to share the story of your organization, not to ask for money. Would your Board member be willing to invite a family foundation Board member to lunch? Or better yet, to meet him or her for a tour of your organization? If so, set up a visit when key staff members are available to join them.
- Remind Board members that their personal commitment will make a strong impression on a foundation executive. Make sure your Board member knows and can share basic facts about your organization and why he/she became involved. Staff can share additional details and answer a funder’s questions about your organization.
Remember – it’s all about building relationships. Foundations are led by boards of individuals who ultimately decide where those foundation dollars are invested. People give to people. Though family foundations are relatively small, usually don’t have paid staff, and customarily support only local causes, they are typically loyal grant makers, giving unrestricted gifts year after year to the same organizations with minimal written proposal requirements.
Cultivating a relationship with a family foundation may take months or even longer, but engaging your Board members with their foundation contacts and taking the time to build awareness and establish trust will pay off in the end.