Winning Grants Step by Step

Resource B: How to Research Funders

MOST OF THE RESOURCES an organization needs to conduct effective prospect research for funding institutions that best match the organization’s programs can be found online.

The Foundation Center ( is rich with information and probably should be the place to begin, as it remains one of the primary sources of information on the field of philanthropy. The Center’s online description of its role in philanthropy is as follows:

Established in 1956 and today supported by close to 550 foundations, the Foundation Center is the leading source of information about philanthropy worldwide. Through data, analysis, and training, it connects people who want to change the world to the resources they need to succeed. The Center maintains the most comprehensive database on U.S. and, increasingly, global grantmakers and their grants—a robust, accessible knowledge bank for the sector. It also operates research, education, and training programs designed to advance knowledge of philanthropy at every level. Thousands of people visit the Center’s web site each day and are served in its five regional library/learning centers and its network of 450 funding information centers located in public libraries, community foundations, and educational institutions nationwide and beyond.

The Foundation Center does provide some of the more basic foundation information for free, including each private foundation’s IRS Form 990-PF. (This form, which assesses compliance with the Internal Revenue Code, lists the organization’s assets, receipts, expenditures, and compensation of directors and officers, and it lists grants awarded during the previous year.)

It should be noted that this information is merely baseline data that will provide the following: contact information, type of foundation, IRS exemption status, financial data, and employer identification number (EIN).

Accessing the more comprehensive data such as previous grants, annual report information, and board and staff leadership is available for a fee through a Foundation Center resource, the Foundation Directory Online ( According to the website of the Foundation Directory Online, it offers “the most comprehensive, in-depth information available on U.S. grantmakers and their grants, drawn from reliable sources, including IRS 990s, grantmaker websites and annual reports, plus data provided directly by grantmakers—ensuring the most accurate, timely information possible.”

That said, a better option might be to go directly to the source, which is each foundation’s individual website. Many foundations of all shapes and endowment sizes, as well as those foundations with no endowment, have websites containing extensive information about its leadership, theory of change, funding areas, previous grantees, and—in most instances—its grant guidelines.

There are also several respected philanthropic centers based on university campuses that provide a plethora of information, including prospect research tools and tips. Three such universities are

If Internet access is an issue, grantseekers should locate the closest Cooperating Collection. Cooperating Collections are free funding information centers in libraries, community foundations, and other nonprofit resource centers that provide a core collection of Foundation Center publications and a variety of supplementary materials and services in areas useful to grantseekers.

Should it turn out that access to a Cooperating Collection is also a challenge, go to the local library. Most public libraries will have Internet access, as well as some level of access to the Foundation Center.

Prospect research, when done correctly, should lead to the following:

Here are some steps to online funder research:

  1. Identify the search criteria to be used in advance of starting the research. These can include key words, subject matter, geographic area, target audience, gender, race and ethnicity, and any other criteria that fit the organization’s interests. Doing this in advance will help grantseekers in refining and targeting the research.

  2. Determine the subject areas and type of support indexes (new program, capital, general operating, and so on). Those foundations and corporations that fund within the type of support being sought and that also express an interest in one or more of the subject areas are likely to be the strongest prospects. Keep an eye out for funders located in the organization’s geographic area, as they are the ones most likely to give close consideration to the grantseeker’s proposal.

  3. Study the information on each prospect identified to learn everything possible about it, as this will allow the grantseeker to further determine whether there is truly a match.

  4. Once funding sources that best match the organization’s funding needs are identified, visit the foundation websites and get to know them even more. Review their annual reports, success stories of previous grants made, staff biographies, and everything else they are sharing with the public. Visiting each prospect funder’s website to check guidelines is also a critical step because guidelines do change over time—and sometimes the changes are significant—but the changes may not have made their way yet into the online directory.

  5. With all the information obtained from prospect funder websites, get a much clearer sense of how to target the proposals to “speak” to each funder in a language to which its program officer is likely to relate. Grantseekers will also have a grasp on how much they can reasonably request from each funder.

  6. It is strongly advised that grantseekers create a prospect grid that lists every prospect identified; the organization’s program that most closely aligns with each prospect’s funding interests as outlined in its grant guidelines; the proposed request amount; deadline dates; and all other pertinent information. Pass this prospect list around to the organization’s board and staff to determine whether anyone has a personal contact on the board or staff of any of these prospect funders.

Here are a few additional, more creative, ways to identify funder prospects:

  1. Visit the websites of nonprofit organizations that are similar in their mission, geographic area, or target audience and take a look at their donor pages. What foundations support these other organizations? Once those foundations are identified, use an Internet search engine to find out more about these potential funders.

  2. Grantees should survey their surroundings. Are there any corporate headquarters close by? Or maybe franchise outlets of popular chains (of restaurants, retail stores, conveniences stores, and the like)? Contact their corporate headquarters, and find out about their corporate contribution programs—for both funding grants and in-kind support.

  3. Look on the donor walls of the local hospitals, universities, and museums. Make note of the foundations and corporations that support these institutions, and then look them up online to find out more. Who knows? Grantseekers just might find a match, especially if the organization is of the same type.

  4. Go to the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers ( to locate the local regional association of grantmakers, and then visit that local association’s website to see what resources and leads it might provide.

  5. See whether a meeting can be set up with the donor relations staff person at the local community foundation. The goal is to find out more about the donor-advised funds at the community foundation and see if there are funds where the donor advisors’ interests potentially match the grantseeker’s programs.