How to Open the Doors to Family Foundations

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Family foundations—relatively small, usually without paid staff and often supporting only local causes—comprise the largest section of the private foundation world. Though their grants are seldom large, support from family foundations can be extremely rewarding:<--break->

  • Their grants are often repeated, year after year.
  • Their grants are often unrestricted or minimally restricted.
  • You rarely have to write a proposal (though good stewardship is essential).


But to get in the door of the family foundation you’ve got to have personal contact with a member of the family. You can’t mail a letter of inquiry or even a formal proposal; no one will open it. In the rare instances where you can find a phone number, it’s often that of the accountant who prepares the annual 990. You can’t send an email—the foundation doesn’t have a web site or list an email address. So you need to find someone connected with your organization who knows a family member and is willing to ask for the opportunity to “tell the story.” This could be a board member, a staff, or a volunteer—the crucial factor is the relationship that already exists between that individual and the family member.

 

Typically, you’ll begin by identifying a family foundation that sounds promising: it supports organizations like yours, in your geographic area, doing the kinds of work you do, and doesn’t indicate any restrictions that would make you ineligible for support. The next step is to get the names of family members from the foundation’s 990-PF (the tax return required to file with the IRS). After that, circulate the names within your organization; you may be surprised at who knows whom. For example, I know one instance where a staff member went to school with the daughter-in-law of the head of the family.

 

Once you’ve identified a connection, you’ll need to do some prep work. Let’s assume that Joe, a member of your board, knows Sally, the vice president of the foundation. Reassure Joe that board members of family foundations are used to being approached by grantseekers and don’t take offense. Make sure Joe knows and can present the basic facts about your organization. Make sure, also, that he can talk about why he himself became involved; his passion for your cause is likely to impress Sally even more than a list of your organization’s achievements. If Joe can get Sally’s attention, he can offer to introduce her to your executive director (or another staff member), who can provide more detailed information. If Sally develops a positive impression of your organization, and if the foundation has some uncommitted resources, a check will simply arrive—no written proposal necessary.

 

Once in a while it works the other way: your organization gets a check from a foundation no one has ever heard of. Somehow, a family member has heard about you. You’ll want to find out what the connection is and build on it. Invite the family for a site visit. Look for opportunities to engage some of them directly, as volunteers or as committee or board members. Ask for their help in identifying other potential supporters. And make sure they know how much you welcome their grant. Stewardship is the art of demonstrating to your supporters the value of their support—not just saying “Thank you,” but showing them how their grant has made a difference. Keep them informed. Bring them into direct contact with the work of your organization. Let them see for themselves how the people you serve are benefiting. That’s the best way to turn a one-time grant into ongoing support.

 

 

— Judy Gooch, Consultant

 
 

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