Have you ever found a funder that seems like the perfect fit, only to learn they don’t accept unsolicited applications?
If your work is niche or you’ve approached all the ‘obvious’ trusts and foundations already, then engaging a couple of these invitation-only funders can feel key to broadening your funding base. But there's an age-old question - how can we get on their radar, especially if they don’t even welcome initial enquiries?
Over time I’ve seen various organisations succeed in building thriving relationships with private, strategic funders. It isn’t quick or easy, but there are a few steps you can take.
Firstly, why might a trust or foundation decide to take the invitation-only approach?
Rightly or wrongly, there can be many reasons:
So...what can charities and social enterprises do about this?
1. Look for potential introductions within your network
If a funder relies on their expertise or networks to identify potential grantees, then a recommendation from the right person could make all the difference. For example, your existing funders or project partners will already be engaged and invested in your work – perhaps they know someone working for an invitation-only funder and would be willing to introduce you?
Do your research and don’t be afraid to ask nicely for an introduction, explaining why it’s strategically important to you – you might by how willing people are to help.
2. Engage (and if necessary improve) your Board
We’ve run countless network mapping exercises with Boards. The conversation often starts the same way: “None of our trustees know anyone / are willing to help.” But it’s amazing how quickly things can change if you explain that (1) you’re not looking for introductions for rich and famous people, just prominent people in your sector; and (2) you don’t expect Board members to open their address books willy-nilly and start asking for money, but simply make a couple of strategic introductions.
Trustees will know more people than you (and they) think. I’ve seen organisations build on such tenuous links as “I worked with them 10 years ago”, “I play badminton with them on Tuesday night” and “Our kids go to the same school”.
Try running a network mapping exercise with your trustees, or circulating a list of staff working at a target invitation-only funder to check for connections. And if your trustees really aren’t well-connected, this doesn’t have to always be the case. Explore why – does your organisation focus on recruiting trustees with particular skills and backgrounds in a way that prevents people with better connections from applying? Could you persuade your Board to set a strategic objective to recruit new trustees with funder connections over the next 1-2 years?
3. Engage invitation-only funders in new and more meaningful ways
Tired old introductory letters and emails are far from the only ways of making first contact. Trusts and foundations can and do interact openly on social media, attend funder fairs, speak at events or collaborate on things like research, policy or advocacy work.
Jumping straight into a direct approach about money often goes nowhere. Instead, do your research into where/how funders are actively engaging (e.g. social media platforms or events), find a topic that could be mutually beneficial to you both, then start a conversation accordingly.
4. Focus on thought leadership
I once met an organisation that was told by a funder that “everyone we speak to mentions you, so we thought we should find out what you’re about.” In their own words, they created so much “white noise” around a funder that they eventually couldn’t resist getting in touch.
Organisations that successfully build relationships with invitation-only funders often have one thing in common – they’re thought leaders. They might be known for their high-profile CEO, engaging blog, or policy work.
The term “thought leadership” sounds daunting, but you absolutely don’t need to be a large organisation with a big comms budget. If you work in a niche area, you’ll already be an expert in your field, with people coming to for advice. Sharpening your public expert voice takes time, but is a great way to get on a funder’s radar, and will bring many benefits beyond fundraising.
5. Get the online basics right
While some invitation-only funders simply continue to fund the same organisations every year, many do proactively research new grantees. So if a funder did a niche online search for your specialist area today, would they find you? And if they landed on your website right now, what would they think?
There are a few fundamental things you need to be visible and appealing to potential funders:
These final tips might seem the least relevant to trusts fundraising, but they definitely an indirect role in getting you in front of invitation-only funders over time.
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