With foundation funders, does “No” mean “Maybe”? – Part 1

A sizeable number of the more than 121,000 foundations in the US -19,888- indicate that they do not accept unsolicited proposals.

We also know that a significant number of current and past FoundationSearch members (more than 16,000) do not approach them for that reason. Is there a missed opportunity here?

Many grant seekers believe that these funders are “captive funders” that act to support a single non-profit such as a school or hospital; or they have a small list of charitable organizations they wish to support and are not receptive to solicitations from new charities. In fact, many of our FoundationSearch users “tag” these foundations in order to exclude them from searches and prospect lists altogether.

But is this really an effective or advisable strategy?

Internet research on the topic reveals that Bradley Smith, the President of Foundation Center, wrote about this topic in 2011 in a blog post entitled “Don’t Call us, We’ll Call You”.  In this piece, he addresses some of the reasons why foundations state that they do not accept unsolicited proposals – the two principal reasons he cites are – one, a desire by funders to limit the volume of requests they are receiving, and two, a desire to proactively choose charities to fulfill their strategic goals. Unfortunately, he did not examine how pervasive the issue is with foundations, and we found no other credible research on the matter. So as such, we decided to do our own.

To do this, we conducted a comprehensive review of FoundationSearch data spanning more than fifteen years of US granting history for over 75,000 grantmaking foundations including more than 10 million grants to gain some insight.

This is what we learned:

19,988 foundations indicate that they do not accept unsolicited proposals.

Of these, 4,608 of these foundations – 23% –  provided no grants to new recipients over the period analyzed.  But 15,380 of these foundations – 77% –  in actual fact did provide grants to multiple new recipients over the period analyzed.

So, the good news is that the majority of funders that state they are not soliciting new proposals are, in fact, funding new recipients.

There are two takeaway lessons from this.

First; don’t be too quick to write off a foundation that states that they are not soliciting proposals –FoundationSearch provides detailed charts in each foundation profile indicating new vs repeat recipients by year. A review of these FoundationSearch charts offers detailed insight into grant funding provided to new recipients. These funding trends can be viewed by Value of Grants, Number of Grants, and Number of Recipients.

Comparison of the Value of New vs Repeat Grants Given by the Marvin and Donna Schwartz Foundation
Value of New vs Repeat Grants Given by the Marvin and Donna Schwartz Foundation
Click on chart to view full size
Comparison of the Number of New vs Repeat Grants Given by the Marvin and Donna Schwartz Foundation
Number of New vs Repeat Grants Given by the Marvin and Donna Schwartz Foundation
Click on chart to view full size
Comparison of the Number of New vs Repeat Grant Recipients for the Marvin and Donna Schwartz Foundation
Number of New vs Repeat Grant Recipients for the Marvin and Donna Schwartz Foundation
Click on chart to view full size

Second; for those funders who are in fact funding new recipients year over year, you will need to find another way in the door – more on this in my next blog.

Recommended Ask Amount

You have worked your way through over 120,000 US foundations to find the best foundation funding prospects for your organization (see my previous blogs on how to determine your best funders, and my review of some of the tools available to do this). Now, you need to answer a crucial question: how much do you ask for from each funder?
It’s a question that every fundraiser needs to ask, and more importantly, needs to have the answer to. In this week’s blog post, we’ll review the problem, do a web survey of the prevailing wisdom, and then outline some of the possible solutions.

You may be asking yourself why you should not just simply ask each of your funding prospects for the amount you need to fund your project. The answer is that foundations have both “floors” and ceilings” on the amounts they give — a request that is too small may be deemed too expensive for the funder to oversee relative to the amount donated; too large a request may exceed the funder’s capacity to give. To compound the problem, these floors and ceilings vary by funder, your area of operation, your non-profit category and other factors including the size of your proposed outcome.

There has been little discussion in the sector on the topic of ask amounts for foundations. A survey of some of the advice available online about optimal ask amounts reveals that most advice is geared toward individual giving capacity — how much to ask from individual donors. From blog posts at DonorPerfect (“the secret to asking the right amount”), to gift range calculators from Blackbaud, most of the guidance and recommendations center around how to deal with individual giving. Some of the suggestions can translate to the world of foundation fundraising, but some of it simply doesn’t apply.

A post on TheGrantPlant, a blog site, directly addresses foundation funder ask amounts and suggests the following: do your research for appropriate funding prospects, check the foundation’s giving history, and don’t expect the entire amount to come from a single foundation funder. All of which makes sense in a very basic and time consuming way. Cataloguing a foundation’s giving history can take time, even when you have tools like Foundation Center’s Foundation Directory Online and Metasoft’s FoundationSearch available. Some foundations actually state their desired gift amounts and publish their desired grant range amounts, but most do not. So, a review of the foundation’s past granting history can give good — and perhaps the only — indication of what an ideal ask amount should be. To do this, you would examine all recent grants made by your foundation prospect, select those that were made to your funding category and location, and determine the “median or middle” amount given, and repeat for each funding prospect — lots of work but essential work. If you had originally identified 200 good foundation prospects for your project, this work could take an hour per prospect, or 200 hours…

Grants given by Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, to New York state, social & human services category
Grants given by Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, to New York state, social & human services category

FoundationSearch is working to take some of the work out of this process, by providing a method of calculating the ideal ask amount automatically, for each funder. Built into its analytic tool for finding the “best funders” for your project, a recommended ask amount is calculated on a foundation by foundation basis by your stated funding category and location. The system reviews the entire granting history for each of your foundation prospects, selects the historic grants that most closely match your project parameters, and calculates the median, maximum and minimum grant amounts made by the funder. The median (middle) grant amount is selected as the “recommended ask amount.” Users can click the amount, and easily view a chart (like the one shown above) of the relevant historic grants and see in which range most of the grants fall.

By asking for a grant amount that is in the middle of the amounts previously granted by the foundation, you lessen the risk of your request being rejected, and you stand a better chance of securing the grant from the foundations you approach. With a list of the best funders, and the optimal amounts to ask from each funder, you are in a much better position to succeed in your fundraising efforts.

(Please feel free to leave a comment, or link/re-post as you like. I look forward to your comments, and opening up the conversation on foundation fundraising!)