First off, know this:
I have never received funding by submitting a cold letter of inquiry to a potential funder out of the blue.
The successful approach, the one that results in a Request for Proposal (also known as an RFP), and ultimately funding later on, has always been the result of one of two circumstances:
Either the funder has taken the initiative to reach out with a request for a proposal (rare, but it does happen!)
Or, as is nearly always the case, the letter of inquiry (commonly abbreviated to LOI) is accompanied by a relationship from within that is nudging along the grant request.
But how to form those alliances?
If your research has turned up a foundation might support your work, you’ll need to take it a few steps further to build bridges with the people behind the institution.
Begin with the website. Most institutional grantmakers post a list of their leadership and staff on their “About” page. Do you know any of them? If so, fantastic. Reach out personally to set up a phone call or a meeting to explore their funding model and talk about your work. Keep in mind that this is not an ask. This is a conversation.
If you don’t know anyone at the institution personally, circulate of a list of their leadership and staff to your team and your board of directors (if you have one). You could also cherry-pick a few names from that list to send to close colleagues or advisors in your network if you feel they might be able to make the connection for you. Philanthropy is a small world and chances are you may be able to secure an introduction just by putting the word out.
It is also appropriate to reach out directly to the program officer at the institution for an exploratory call. Program officers are among the kindest and most down-to-earth people I’ve met in philanthropy. An initial call with them is typically time-saving and informative. Even if they don’t feel your work is a right fit for their funding, they almost always have a helpful suggestion of where you might turn to next.
Before you reach out to them, know ahead of time why you feel their grant opportunities would be aligned with your work. Be sure you have done your homework and have gleaned everything you could about their grant making from their website so that you don’t waste their time seeking information you could have found yourself. Guidelines, requirements, deadlines – Most of this is usually available online.
Have your questions lined up. I like to ask two things in particular: What are the funding priorities of the institution right now? What about going forward? I ask this because institutions can shift behind-the-scenes. Leadership changes. People move on to other organizations and sectors. New values are introduced. Strategic planning sessions shake up grantmaking priorities. You can only learn so much from a website. Asking this question will give you insight into what opportunities may be coming later down the line.
Finally, keep in contact with them. Successfully raising funds from grantmaking institutions is a lengthy process that doesn’t happen from one phone call and never happens overnight. You need to gently stay on their radar for the duration and always keep an eye out for an opportunity to submit a proposal to arise.