“I don’t even know where to start looking.”
That’s the lament I hear most often from people who want to start writing grants for their school, church, faith-based organization, or nonprofit.
Finding a grant that fits your organization can feel daunting. You assume that somebody somewhere is funding afterschool programs — or community gardens, or homeless ministries, or public art — but where are they? In 2012, private and community foundations alone awarded $50 billion in grants. So why does it feel like the grantmaker who would be passionate about your nonprofit’s mission is hiding in plain sight?
Let me reassure you: No hidden codes, no secret societies, and no esoteric knowledge are required to find the right grant opportunities for your organization.
In fact, right now I’m going to introduce you to the 10 places I visit first to find potential funders for my clients. (In future posts, I will supplement this list with additional resources that are specific to schools and faith-based organizations. But I encourage you to begin here.) I can’t guarantee that you’ll find what you’re looking for there, but I have a hunch you are going to feel encouraged and more equipped.
Here are three pieces of advice before you get started:
- Capture everything: Whether you use handwritten notes, a word processing program, Evernote, printouts, or some other method, make sure you collect what you find so that you can fully process and organize it later.
- Limit yourself: Identify your “filters” beforehand — including geographic area, types of funding, audience, etc. If you are trying to fund camp scholarships for low-income youth in Peoria, don’t waste your time researching a foundation dedicated to helping seniors in Poughkeepsie. This is only obvious until you find yourself doing it.
- Make the time: This may take a while. If possible, make a day of it. Or dedicate an hour or two each day over the course of a week. Trust me, a thorough search will pay lasting dividends.
Okay, ready? Here we go!
1. FOUNDATION DIRECTORY ONLINE
Foundation Directory Online (FDO) is so robust, so searchable, so interesting, and so indispensable that it will someday get its own blog post. The reason? FDO provides profiles of over 140,000 grantmakers, including independent foundations, public charities, and corporate giving programs. Here is just some of the information provided for each profile:
- Fields of interest
- Names of officers and trustees
- Application deadlines and instructions
- The grantmaker’s purpose and activities
- Contact information
- Geographic focus and other limitations
- Types of support (general/operation, endowments, capacity building, capital, etc.)
Even after you’ve run a search on FDO, you can filter the results by selecting and de-selecting criteria such as the type of grant, type of grantmaker, location, total annual giving, and more. Also, FDO is updated weekly, so you can be reasonably certain that the information you find there is current.
FDO has three subscription levels, ranging from $39.99 per month to $149.99 per month. If you’re like many small- and medium-sized nonprofits, the cost of getting your own subscription might be out of reach. Thankfully, there is another way. The Foundation Center — the organization behind FDO — has put together a nationwide network of libraries, community foundations, and nonprofit resource centers that offer a suite of useful resources, including Foundation Directory Online. With 450 current partners, there is probably a location near you.
2. FOUNDATION DATABOOKS
If you are looking for information about grant funders in your state — and you happen to live in Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Nebraska, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, Tennessee, or Washington (the states where DataBooks are currently available) — you simply can’t do better than a Foundation DataBook.
The Foundation DataBook describes itself as “the fundraiser’s best friend,” and it’s hard to disagree. Not only does each Foundation DataBook offer “a state-specific, comprehensive, up-to-date directory” of that state’s grantmaking foundations, you also get a listing of every grant the foundations made in the most recent year on record. You see the name of the recipient, the location, the award amount, and the purpose of the grant. Why is this so helpful? Because looking at past awards is one way of discerning how receptive the foundation will be to your proposal.
Foundation DataBooks are usually updated once every two years. If writing grants is going to be a major part of your longterm fundraising strategy, I recommend buying a copy. When I was the grants manager for the Oregon College of Art and Craft, I consulted mine at least once a week. They range in cost from $100-$200 — slightly more if you want to add a searchable CD-ROM version. If you don’t want to spend that kind of money, or if you just want to try it out first, many local libraries have a copy in their reference sections.
One final point about Foundation DataBooks: never underestimate the power of browsing. Flipping through the pages, you might stumble across a grantmaker whose mission perfectly fits your own.
3. THE GRANTSMANSHIP CENTER
The Grantsmanship Center has compiled several simple lists of the prominent funders from each state. For example, when I search for Oregon, I can find lists of community foundations, the largest corporate giving programs, and the state’s forty largest foundations. Here are the top five for Oregon, by the way, ranked by annual giving:
- The Oregon Community Foundation ($62,789,915)
- Intel Foundation ($45,318,315)
- The Ford Family Foundation ($26,159,959)
- Meyer Memorial Trust ($22,175,767)
- Nike Foundation ($13,840,324)
4. GRANTMAKERS ASSOCIATIONS
Many grant funders find it useful to create and join grantmakers associations — convening by region, by type of funder, or by area of interest. They come together to expand their impact, share best practices, improve the grantmaking process, and communicate with the public and with policymakers. (Grantmakers associations can also be a great place to find the latest research in your field, informing your programs and bolstering your grant proposal.) Most grantmaker associations don’t give out grants, but their membership rolls make life just a little bit easier for the grant writer trying to discover potential funders.
To find an association of grantmakers that have come together around a particular cause, issue, or population, I suggest browsing the list of Affinity Groups at the Council on Foundations. Here are just a few examples:
- Funders Together to End Homelessness: A national network of funders that have individually and collaboratively invested millions of dollars in pursuit of their mission to “end and prevent homelessness.” [Members]
- Grantmakers in Aging: An “inclusive and responsive membership organization that is a national catalyst for philanthropy, with a common dedication to improving the experience of aging. GIA members have a shared recognition that a society that is better for older adults is a society that is better for people of all ages.” [Members]
- Grassroots Grantmakers: A network of place-based funders that support active citizenship and build civic capacity at the block level with “scale-appropriate grants, a highly relational style of grant making, and a learning orientation.” [Members]
In my experience, regional grantmakers associations are often the most useful, because I can be sure that the Grantmakers of Oregon and Southwest Washington are funding programs close to home. To find a network of funders near you, check out the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers. That’s right, it’s an association of grantmakers associations.
5. GOVERNMENT SOURCES
To find and apply for federal grants, the best place to start looking is Grants.gov. There, you can browse grants by category (agriculture, arts and culture, education, housing, etc.), by agency (Department of Education, Department of Justice, and more), and even by eligibility: cities and townships, county governments, school districts, nonprofits, and so on. You can also search by keyword and then filter and sort your results.
A word to the wise, spend some time in Grant.gov’s Applicant Resources section. To apply for federal dollars, your organization needs to register with Grants.gov. This is a five-step process. It’s not difficult but turnaround can take up to 14 business days, so you’ll want to start well in advance of your application deadline.
Some state governments have pages on their websites dedicated to listing current grant opportunities. Many others — including my own state — do not. In the latter case, you will likely have to visit the state agencies that are the best fit your organization’s mission. Many of those departments will have grant opportunities listed somewhere on their site. If you still can’t find the information you’re looking for, I recommend calling or emailing.
Many city and county governments offer grants too. If you can’t find information online, call or email. In my experience, you’ll almost always get a prompt, knowledgeable, and helpful response.
6. COLLEAGUE ORGANIZATIONS
Though the process of creating and submitting a grant application is sometimes called the “competitive grant process” (because your grant is being evaluated against a scoring rubric, against other applicants, or both), it’s counterproductive to think of other organizations as your “competitors.” Chances are, if your application is being evaluated alongside someone else’s, they are your colleagues: you are working in the same sector, or serving the same community.
Developing closer relationships with colleague organizations brings a number of rewards. You can identify those areas in which the their work overlaps and compliments your own. You can share best practices, share research, coordinate communication with the public, lobby together for your cause, and collaborate on projects.
You can also share funding ideas. Funding resources are not so scarce that you need to worry about challenges from friends, especially if those same friends are opening up new funding avenues for your organization too.
Even if you don’t yet have a relationship with your colleague organizations, you can still sometimes find a list of their financial supporters — on their websites, in programs and brochures, and in annual reports.
7. LOCAL BUSINESSES
Many companies want to give back to the communities where they do business. Here are a few questions to get you started:
- Who are some of the “big box” stores in your community? Lowe’s, Home Depot, and Walmart all have robust corporate grant programs, as do many other major retailers.
- What banks serve your community? Nearly all regional and national banks seem to have giving programs of one kind or another. Visit their websites (or talk to them in person) to find out more.
- Who are the big utility providers in your community? Utility companies often have grant programs too. (In my area, this includes Portland General Electric and NW Natural.)
- Who are the biggest employers in your community? Some companies limit their grant giving to the communities in which their employees live and work.
8. PERSONAL CONNECTIONS
You know people. And those people know people. And those people know other people. Tap into your social network to help find your next grant.
When I announced on Facebook last month that I was going to be working part-time as my local school district’s first-ever grant writer, an acquaintance left a comment saying that her husband had recently started working for one of the largest foundations in the Pacific Northwest, and that I should keep him in mind when looking for grants. (Okay!)
Don’t keep secret what you’re trying to do. When researching potential funders, ask your organization’s staff, volunteers, and board if they have relationships with any grantmakers.
When you do find a potential funder — especially when it is a local grantmaker — look up the names of the foundation’s trustees, which you can find the names at Foundation Directory Online, in your Foundation DataBook, on the foundation’s website, or on their IRS Form-990. Send the names to your board of directors to see if any of the names look familiar. Do they have relationships with any of the trustees that can be leveraged on your organization’s behalf?
An active grant writer should be an active reader. I have discovered potential funders in the following places:
- The Chronicle of Philanthropy: This monthly magazine is jam-packed with news and analysis geared toward nonprofit leaders, grantmakers, and grant writers and other fundraisers. Each issue also includes a shortlist of recent grant awards. It is the first section I turn to when I receive my new issue. (By the way, subscribers to The Chronicle of Philanthropy receive free access to GrantStation, a searchable database of grantmakers and deadlines.)
- Philanthropy News Digest: A daily news service of The Foundation Center, Philanthropy News Digest is a compendium of many of the best philanthropy-related articles from around the country. It also publishes RFPs (Requests for Proposals) on behalf of grantmakers. You can sign up to get both the news digest and the RFP Bulletin in your email inbox.
- Newspapers and Business Journals: Regional business journals, and the business sections of newspapers, occasionally write about philanthropists, grantmakers, and businesses who want to give back to the community.
Presumably this is where many fundraisers start. If you haven’t yet, give it a try. Put the power of Google’s search algorithm to work for you. And be as audaciously specific as you can. For example, I once Googled:
school garden grants oregon 2015
Scrolling through the search results, I found helpful information about the expansion of the Oregon Department of Education’s farm-to-school and school garden grants, several state and national grant opportunities, articles about recent school garden grant recipients, and research about what makes for a great school garden.
In the last month, I’ve had similar success searching for grants for playgrounds, school security, and school renovation.
Questions: Where do you go to find potential funders? Where would you send an organization just beginning to search for grants?
The Grant Writing Process: 11 Basic Steps (PDF & Checklist)
Writing grants for your organization is an adventure.
You wouldn't set out on an epic hike without at least a general understanding of the terrain ahead. So why would you set out on your grantseeking journey without an overview of what lies in store?
This eight-page PDF and checklist are the perfect place to start.