Philanthropy is, increasingly, a world of insiders. How many foundation websites explain in no uncertain terms that they do not accept unsolicited proposals, or even unsolicited letters of interest? For nonprofits that aren’t already in the foundations’ circles or don’t socialize with the foundation leaders and staff, it looks and feels like an impenetrable, unscalable, concrete wall. And as government programs like the Social Innovation Fund put government dollars into grantmakers who bring their own predetermined lists of grantees, smaller and newer nonprofits—particularly nonprofits representing the interests and concerns of controversial constituencies—find foundation fundraising an impossible game that could even affect their prospects for some public sector funding. Imagine the sound of a metal gate closing just as you get to the door. That’s where foundations tend to be nowadays.
Does this mean that foundation grantmaking reaches an ever-narrowing range of nonprofits? To an extent, unfortunately, yes. The foundation grantmaking game—remember, we’re talking about some 100,000 foundations—depends a lot on who you know on the inside (or as an intermediary referral) who will bring your nonprofit’s proposal or letter of interest to the attention of someone within the hallowed halls of philanthropy. The barrier presented by foundations that won’t even entertain or read unsolicited letters is a real problem for nonprofits looking for the “risk capital” that foundations are known for. But nonprofits with good ideas, strong experience, and projects and programs worth funding are a hardy lot and sometimes find ways of vaulting over the barriers to present ideas to foundations that they might not otherwise hear or consider—but should.