Approaching a Family Foundation is like Having Dinner with a Family

Here at the Unfunded List we are currently quite busy reviewing our fourth and largest round of unfunded proposal submissions. By the time we complete our review next month and announce the next iteration of the Unfunded List (June 1st – Stay Tuned!) we will have reviewed proposals from over 75 startup social good organizations – mostly nonprofits. After each round, I offer a call or meeting with every applicant and most accept. I have also spoken with hundreds of nonprofits as part of my general outreach as the head of a family foundation and the founder of a small nonprofit looking to partner with other nonprofits. Most of my previous roles at organizations like PVBLIC Foundation, Atlas Corps and the Slingshot Fund also involved speaking directly with the unfunded and helping them figure out how to best reach their goals. These organizations are staffed with smart, talented and hard-working young change-makers many of whom don’t know the first thing about how to approach a foundation.

They lack key information in a number of areas as well. Something we detailed in a blog post last year.  This stands to reason. We usually don’t teach about Foundations or Grant writing in school. I’m confident that the majority of high school graduates in this country are graduating with a working knowledge of the Post Office. They can mail and receive letters, identify a postman or mailbox on sight, and tell you what a stamp is for. I am considerably less confident in their ability to tell you what a family foundation is or how grants are decided. Which would be more useful for them to know about? Do you think?

Every family is different (which is kind of my overarching point), but basically getting a grant from a foundation is like having dinner with a family. I’ll now elaborate on the having dinner metaphor to a potentially annoying degree. 

To have dinner with a family it is almost always necessary to know the family. I’m sure there are families out there with an open door policy at dinner that allow or encourage strangers to walk right in, sidle up to the table and start just start passing the gravy and scooping mashed potatoes. God bless these families, but they are unfortunately rare. In reality, if you were to walk into a stranger’s home and sit down to dinner, you would not be welcome. No dining consultant would advise this strategy.

A strategy preferable to waltzing right in is to get to know the family first. Identify a family member who has similar interests and build a relationship over time; do not rush the relationship. In time, if all goes well, you will eventually get an invitation to dinner – assuming this family eats. Perhaps you could even host your own dinner and invite them over first to build trust and show you are a great dinner companion. (I’m not saying you have to give a grant to the foundation first — this is a loose metaphor, but you can show them that you are a useful and relevant player in your field and that there is a benefit for them in having a relationship with an up-and-coming and promising nonprofit like yours led by a thought-leader like you). No one wants a dinner guest who just quietly asks for food, eats and leaves. Best to tell a few jokes or anecdotes. Make an impression and get yourself invited back. If you get invited back on several occasions, eventually you can start suggesting menu ideas or even make special requests like extra mustard or olive oil instead of butter. But you should remember that some families have strict dietary restrictions or ethical concerns about certain types of food. It is always a good idea to ask in advance if you are suggesting a specific type of cuisine. 


Family Foundation funding may not be the right fit for your nonprofit. Like all things, developing personal relationships is a skill that takes practice and one that is not for everyone. Perhaps you might be more satisfied by some fast food (corporate funding), a quick trip to a food truck (crowd-funding), or a perfectly suitable meal in a cafeteria (government grants). Or you could cook your own meals (earned revenue). But it’s hard to argue with a nice home-cooked meal from a family who shares your vision for what the world might be. Families built the world we live in and families can fix it. Like I said, it may not be for you but there are over 50,000 family foundations in the United States and even more family-affiliated donor-advised funds, CRTs, CLATS, CRUTS, FRICS* and other piles of money. The total pile approaches one trillion dollars. 

To help the unfunded learn more about Foundations and how to receive an invitation to dinner we are currently in production of a new podcast called Invitation Only – a podcast about philanthropy. On my series #WineGrants, I invited philanthropists to our booth and we offered them wine. On Invitation Only, I’ll be doing my best to get myself invited into the homes and offices of some of America’s most elite philanthropists. Stay tuned to see what they offer me and where I get invited next. 

*Only one of these is made up. Can you spot the phony acronym?

Family_eating_meal