The Secret to Winning "Invitation Only" Grants Foundations Won't Tell You

Updated: May 24, 2019

Picture this:

You just found the perfect foundation. They share your mission. They have funded similar organizations to yours.

But then you realize they do grants by invitation only.

I've been in this situation before and I know it feels like hitting a dead end.

Does this mean you should give up and look for a new funder?


There are still methods you can use to apply to these foundations it will just require a different approach.

The fact is, 60% of foundations handle applications by invitation only so if you decide not to pursue these grants you are leaving many opportunities on the table.

This guide will help you navigate the foundation search process, teach you proven methods you can use to apply to an "invite only" foundation, and determine if these foundations are right for you.

Avoid grant search mistakes by learning to cut through the lingo

The first thing you need to know is how to distinguish between the different types of grant opportunities.

Each foundation use slightly different terms, and sometimes they even use terms incorrectly.

Here's what to look for:

If a foundation says it accepts unsolicited applications this means you may apply for the grant without having first established a relationship with the funder, or receiving permission to apply.

Foundations that accept unsolicited applications usually provide specific instructions on their website for how to submit a letter of inquiry, which is the first step in the application process.

If they do not have instructions, you can submit a generic letter of inquiry. Our Instant Letter of Inquiry Tool lets you create one in minutes.

Foundations that do not accept unsolicited applications typically do not have application instructions on their website.

Your organization can not initiate the application process. The only way to submit an application is to receive a personal invitation to apply.

Foundations that do not accept unsolicited applications rely on other methods to discover organizations to invite for application. We'll cover this later.

What about invitation only?

Foundations that do not accept unsolicited applications sometimes refer to this as application by invitation only. The terms are used interchangeably.

The confusion comes in when foundations use the term incorrectly, which based on my experience doing foundation research happens about 10% of the time.

I'll explain how to tell the difference.

But first, you need to understand what a letter of inquiry is in order to understand how foundations misuse the term invitation only.

A letter of inquiry is the first step in the application process for almost all foundations. It is a mini application that foundations use to initially determine if you are good potential fit.

If your letter of inquiry looks good you will be asked to complete a full length application.

Some foundations claim that their application is by invitation only but what they really mean is you have to first send a letter of inquiry and then you will be invited to submit a full application if your letter is accepted.

In other words, this process is exactly the same as it is at any foundation that openly accepts letters of inquiry.

Its all a bit confusing, I know.

The bottom line is see if the foundation accepts letters of inquiry. If the website is unclear about this, call or email someone at the foundation to find out.

Side note: we are careful to make this distinction when entering information into our foundation database. All of our listings reflect whether you may send an unsolicited letter of inquiry to a foundation or not.

Now that you understand the difference between foundations, I will discuss how you can apply to these elusive opportunities.

How to get an invite to an invitation only foundation

Your goal is to get on the radar of someone at your target foundation. You want them to come to you.

Remember, foundations are a collection of people. Figure out who these people are, learn where you can find them to connect (both in real life and online), and determine their funding interests.

Armed with this information you can put together a plan to get their attention.

Here are a few proven strategies you can use:

1) Identify existing connections

See if anyone you know has a connection to someone at the target foundation.

This includes your board members. They can be a good source of connections. Have them reach out and introduce you and try to set up an initial meeting or call.

Your goal in this meeting is simply to introduce your organization and learn more about their interests.

You don't want to ask for money during this initial meeting. If it goes well then you can schedule subsequent meetings where you can discuss a potential grant.

2) Get your name out there

Foundations are always looking for new organizations to fund. If your organization is more publicly visible then you are more likely to be noticed.

Here are some good methods:

  • Get the press to cover your organization

  • maintain your organization's social media presence

  • publish articles relevant to your field

  • boost your website SEO

  • go to events that might be attended by foundation staff or board members

Look up inbound marketing to learn more about these strategies.

When you go to events also take the opportunity to cultivate relationships with other organizations and prominent individuals in your community and field. These people might in turn know foundation staff and tell them about you.

In general adopt a mindset of always finding ways to promote your organization. This will help all of your fundraising efforts, not just grants.

3) Prove your worth

Foundations don't just want to fund any old organization that supports their mission.

They want the best organizations doing the most cutting edge or interesting work.

Publicize your success stories, achievements and program results within your field so others can see how great your work is.

If you can't be the best then be unique.

Be the only service provider in your area. Often funders turn down otherwise qualified organizations because they have already funded five or ten similar programs.

If you are the only organization doing x, that inherently makes you more valuable.

4) Leverage social media

Follow foundation board members and staff on social media. Also follow other prominent individuals who work on your issue.

But the plan isn't to reach out directly via personal message.

Rather, look for opportunities to join the public conversation.

One smart comment on Twitter could be enough to catch the attention of a potential funder. If they are impressed with your input then they may get in touch with you or go to your website to learn more about your organization.

Speaking of websites... (bonus tip)

Make sure yours is spiffy. This may be your first impression on a potential funder.

You wouldn't want to lose them because your website is 10 years out of date and a pain to navigate.

5) Talk to their grantees

Here's a quick strategy that most don't consider.

Look at the organizations the foundation has previously funded.

Then ask those organizations how they developed their relationship with the foundation. This can give you insight on how to get the attention of the foundation.

6) Cold contact

If all else fails you can try a cold call or email. This is less effective than a warm connection but it's better than nothing.

You miss 100% of the shots you don't take.

7) Never do this!

For good measure lets discuss one thing you should avoid.

Don't annoy your potential funders.

This means don't bombard them with emails or meeting requests. Don't ask for money right off the bat. Don't stalk them. Don't add them your newsletter without permission in the hope they will find it interesting.

The whole reason these funders are invite only is because they do not want to deal with a flood of requests.

Interact with them on their terms and they will be more willing to get to know you.

How to use these strategies effectively

I realize that was a lot to take in.

That's why I will teach you a framework that will help you remember and implement the strategies I just listed. its called AIDA.

Win funders with the AIDA method

One way to think about this process is with the marketing acronym, AIDA. It stands for Attention, Interest, Desire, Action.

  1. First you need to make sure the foundation is aware that you exist (get your name out there).

  2. Then you need to get their interest by showing that you do the type of work that they fund.

  3. To generate desire you need to demonstrate you have an exciting program or that you are an expert in the field.

  4. And, finally, action is directly asking them about a grant. This is like telling customers to "buy now" but it only works if you have taken them through the first three steps.

Once you have a foundation's desire its time to act. Don't assume they will come running to you.

Over time they might forget about you or lose your contact information. They might be busy. Or your contact might leave their job at the foundation.

Be proactive and don't let your opportunity escape.

Here's one final word of advice.

Realize that this is a drawn out process. It may take a year or more to develop a relationship that will eventually lead to a grant opportunity.

However, if you do take the time to cultivate foundation interest it can be can be immensely rewarding.

Only a small percentage of nonprofits cultivate these relationships. If you master these strategies you will be able to stand out from the crowd.

Given the difficulty of this process it may not be the best strategy for all organizations. In the final section I will help you decide if you should pursue these foundations or look for funding elsewhere.

Use a"dual attack" strategy to maximize your grant seeking ROI

Unless you are a large organization with a dedicated grant writing staff, you will probably only be able to pursue a subset of the potential foundations that look promising.

This means you need to focus your time and energy on the best opportunities.

So as a small organization you will want to use a "dual attack" strategy.

Start with a grant search to get a sense for what the opportunities are available to you.

If there are foundations that accept unsolicited applications then I suggest you start there. The application process for these grants should be less time consuming than the relationship-building process I outlined in the last section.

Plus you can apply to these opportunities right away without having invested any effort in building up your public reputation.

Here's where the strategy gets interesting:

While you are applying to these foundations, you can start to slowly incorporate the attention and interest building methods I outlined above. Over time they can become part of your normal ongoing operations.

So in other words you are going to simultaneously pursue short term and long term strategies.

This way if you have no luck receiving grants from the foundations that accept unsolicited applications, you will over time start to be in a better position to connect with invite only foundations because you have been building up your image and raising awareness.

Build a long term foundation for grant success

Many organizations fail the first few times they apply for grants and then lose interest in pursuing them altogether.

In order to succeed at grant writing you will have to learn to embrace failure. You are inevitably going to be turned down by funders.

The key is to get feedback and learn from your mistakes.

If a funder rejects you because they have already funded 10 identical programs to yours, don't grumble about being the unlucky 11th.

Instead, find ways to make your program more effective or innovative so that you can stand out from the pack. This matters not just for finding grants but also for furthering your mission.

If you can learn from your failures then they will become the building blocks of success.


Invite only foundations are harder to engage but if you are able to connect, they are more likely to take a long term interest in your work.

Take the time to master the strategies of professional grant seekers, and it will ultimately be a rewarding investment.


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