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Finding the best funders

From pop-ups on your web browser to glossy brochures that arrive in the mail, grant offers seem to be everywhere. Supporters pass on bits and pieces about specific grants they’re familiar with, or stories of other organizations that have benefited from grant money.

Grants can indeed be an important ingredient in a successful fundraising project or capital campaign. But actually tracking down a funder whose philanthropic interests are compatible with your needs can be a bit more difficult. Investing in dedicated research may be well worth your time and money.

Casting the net

A good place to begin your research is the Foundation Directory, which allows one to search grantmakers by a wide range of criteria, including:

• geographic focus

• fields of interest

• size of gift

• types of support (general/operating support, donated products, scholarships and program development to name just a few)

Once the search criteria are entered, the directory generates a list of potential funders and allows one to view a profile of each. In addition to the items listed above, this profile provides contact information, names of officers and board members, deadlines and, often, a sampling of past recipients.

One drawback to the Foundation Directory is that it requires an annual subscription of anywhere from $195 to $1295, depending on your membership plan. This can be cost prohibitive for organizations operating on a tight budget or planning to make only a minimal investment in the grant process. A second disadvantage is that it only includes grantmakers who are registered with the Foundation Center; some private family foundations are not. Even so, the database contains over 96,000 foundations, corporate giving programs and public charities, and makes an excellent starting point for grant research.

Other free sources provide some of the same search options, though are not as comprehensive as the Foundation Directory. One is, which sorts available grants by subject area, population group, and a general category “Regional Grants and Resource Sites,” that includes grant opportunities in each of the 50 states. State libraries also commonly maintain an online grant directory and/or links to other grant resources.

Identifying the best prospects

Once you’ve compiled an initial list, it’s time to go over the resulting grantmakers with the fine-toothed comb to yield the best matches for your organization. In many cases this process whittles a few hundred possibilities down to just 10 or 15 best prospects.

An obvious first step is visiting each foundation’s website and/or requesting any publications they have. In addition to more complete application guidelines, these materials often reveal whether or not the Foundation Directory profile is up to date. For example, perhaps the foundation is no longer accepting unsolicited applications; perhaps it has decided to add or drop one of its giving programs; perhaps it has a new program officer or contact person.

At this point, the Directory offers another helpful tool: a grants database that profiles additional past recipients, often providing links to their respective websites. As an example of how this can be useful, a church camp and Advancement Associates client was looking for money for a capital campaign. Two organizations with “Camp” in their names showed up as past grant recipients from a specific foundation, whose stated areas of interest included children/youth services, environment, and medical research. Judging from the names alone, the first two interest areas made our client seem like a good candidate for grant money. A visit to one recipient’s website, however, produced an important realization: this “Camp” also engaged the foundation’s third area of interest, as its patrons were children with cancer.

As a second example, suppose an organization similar to yours—maybe even in your geographic area—has received grant funding, but you don’t know from whom, for what or how much. If the funder is registered with the Foundation Center, you can learn all of that information and more by entering the organization’s name in the “Recipient Name” field.

One word of caution at this point in your research process: be realistic. Your passion for your organization can tempt you into thinking that by wording things just right or by enthusiastically conveying the uniqueness of your ministry, that you’ll find favor with a grantmaker, even when its profile suggests otherwise. If a foundation specifies a geographic location, respect it. If it indicates there is no funding for specific kinds of projects, believe it. Don’t expect to be the exception. A foundation’s past giving record is the best evidence of whether or not your project is likely to catch its interest.

Getting your hands dirty

The research steps described thus far can be accomplished anonymously. Not so from here on out: it’s time to make some phone calls, arrange some meetings and send some emails before submitting your request. The more you know about a potential funder, the better your chances of preparing a winning grant proposal. Here are a few pointers:

1. Capitalize on personal connections. Take a list of a foundation’s key personnel to your next board and staff meetings. Especially at the local level you or someone connected to your organization—staff, board, loyal donors, campaign cabinet members—may be personally acquainted with a board member or CEO of a foundation or corporate giving program. If you’re fortunate to find a connection, ask that person to arrange an introductory meeting for you or to put in a good word for your organization.

2. Learn as much as you can about each grantmaker. If you’re unclear about whether you’re eligible to apply or if your project fits the grantmaker’s guidelines, call the program officer and ask. Pay attention to what you hear; even if the project you have in mind doesn’t seem to fit the foundation’s priorities, maybe a different need would. As long as your project is mission driven, be open to other possibilities. If you’re comfortable doing so, call past recipients to ask if they’d mind sharing their experience working with a given foundation and what advice they would offer you.

3. Keep track of what you learn. Even if a particular giving program doesn’t seem to be a fit right now, it might in the future. While some foundations limit the amount an organization can receive within a certain amount of time, others fund repeatedly the same places. Documenting your previous contacts can help you save time later in identifying the relationships from which you are most likely to benefit in the future.

Final thoughts

Remember, the ideas presented here pertain only to the first step of the grant cycle–research. Once you’ve identified the most promising grantmakers and have your foot is in the door, more work remains:

• Preparing and submitting the grant proposal;

• Exercising good grant stewardship (allocating funds correctly, filing program and financial reports on time, etc.);

• Maintaining an ongoing positive relationship with the foundation and program officer.

As with research, each of these steps requires careful diligence and attention to detail from those involved.

How AAI can help

Organizations with little or no previous grant experience or limited staff time should consider enlisting outside help for grant research. Advancement Associates, Inc. subscribes to the Foundation Directory and offers grant research services that ensure efficiency and care in identifying best prospects for our clients and the wisest use of organizational resources for pursuing grants. To inquire about these services, email us.