3 Essential Sources of Grants for Your Organization
Today I want to describe the three most common sources of grants for your nonprofit, school, or faith-based organization. They are: foundations, corporations, and government agencies.
The word “foundation” is a squishy term. The best definition I’ve found that reflects how the word is actually used in the nonprofit world is from the experts at the Council on Foundations. Even their description gets a bit wonky, so I’ll paraphrase it this way:
A foundation is a nonprofit organization that grants money to other nonprofits, to institutions, or to individuals, in order to support scientific, educational, cultural, religious, or other charitable purposes.
Private foundations derive their funds from a single source—for example, an individual, a family, or a corporation. (We’ll discuss corporate foundations in the next section.) Private foundations are governed by trustees or a board of directors.
Family foundations are the most common subtype of private foundations. In fact, according to Foundation Center, there are more than 42,000 family foundations in the United States. As you’d expect, family foundations derive all their funds from one family. Most family foundations are small, with assets of less than $1 million. Family members usually stay involved in managing the foundation, serving as trustees, and—especially in smaller foundations—playing a major role in deciding who will be be awarded grants.
One time I wrote a grant to a small family foundation and, for the final step in the review process, my colleague and I were called to the foundation offices to make a presentation to the board. We were shown into a conference room where we introduced to eight trustees. All but two were family members. If this meeting sounds intimidating to you, I promise it wasn’t. While the board asked good questions of due diligence, they also put us at ease, offering homemade cookies and bottled water. What I loved about that experience was the chance to develop long-term relationships with the people from whom we were requesting funds—and from whom we would probably request funds again in the future.
Another great source of grants is the community foundation. Community foundations pool the resources of multiple donors. Because a community foundation receives most of its support from the general public, it isn’t considered by the IRS to be a private foundation; it qualifies as a public charity. That said, a grant writer will interact with a community foundation in much the same way she would a private foundation. There are more than 700 community foundations around the country. This map from the Council on Foundations makes it easy to find one near you.
Many corporations give back to the communities where they do business. This is both good for the communities and good publicity for the company. As I’ve written elsewhere, businesses support nonprofits in a variety of ways, including sponsorships, employee matching grants, and in-kind gifts. Some businesses (and public utilities) also award grants through corporate foundations. A corporate foundation is a private foundation, distinct from the company and yet funded by a portion of the company’s profits. A corporate foundation reflects the parent company’s interests and priorities.
When looking for corporate foundation grants, I encourage folks to start with the following questions:
Who are some of the “big box” stores doing business in your community?
What banks serve your community?
What public utilities—electric, water, gas, etc.—serve your community?
Who are the largest employers in your community?
You can also find government grants at the federal, state, and local level.
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.
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 e-mailing.
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.
Examples of government grants include the federal Inspire! Grant for Small Museums, California's 21st Century Community Learning Center grant program (technically, federal money being distributed by the state), and environmental funding from the Marion County (Oregon) Soil & Water Conservation District.