Getting Your Foot in the Foundation Door

Dear Kim,

I recently submitted a brief letter of inquiry to a program officer at a major foundation about a project we are developing, seeking a meeting with him to discuss the project and seek advice in developing our program in this area.  I originally contacted him on the advice of another program officer who is a friend of ours and of the program officer at this foundation, and who woks at a foundation which funds us.  Less than two weeks after submitting the letter, I received back a form email thanking us for the funding request (which we didn’t make) and rejecting the project.

How does one go back to a foundation that should be a good fit but has rejected you before you get your foot in the door?  I know that sometimes foundation officers and foundation boards simply reject an idea or proposal, often because it doesn’t fit within their guidelines or they have other priorities, but it’s frustrating when that rejection occurs long before they take the time to learn about the project/organization making the request.

~Over Before It Began

Dear Over,

Don’t despair.  Your experience is extremely common.  As you can imagine, every foundation receives far more requests than they can fund, so often they delegate the first round of sorting to an assistant and this person glances at your letter and sends out the form rejection.  In a previous job, I had to sort through hundreds of letters and proposals and even though I tried to give them all a fair reading, by the end of the day, at my 100th worthy cause, I admit that I was not paying close attention.  I know I could easily have sent rejection letters to people who hadn’t even applied!  You should also check and see whether this foundation accepts unsolicited proposals because if they don’t, they probably send a form rejection to everyone who writes who they don’t already know. 

What you need to do is contact your friend and ask him or her to email you both and “e-introduce” you to each other, or ask your friend to call the program officer and see if he or she is willing to speak with you. Your friend can sort it out and make sure the next time you approach this program officer, you at least get a hearing.