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The Most Overlooked Part of Grant Writing

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Here’s a secret: there’s more to grant writing than just “writing.” A lot more.

Successful grant writing always starts with thorough research, and it ends with a thoughtful review.

This post focuses on research – the most overlooked part of grant writing.

If you’re new to grant writing, you might not know how to start your research.

And even if you have some experience, you might not know exactly what you’re looking for or what’s useful information.

Don’t worry. Here’s what you need to know to get started with your grant research.

Where do I find a foundation that might fund our work?

The Foundation Center reports that 90% of foundations don’t have websites. So, if all you’re using is Google to find foundations, you’re only scratching the surface.

The Foundation Center has a subscription database called Foundation Directory Online. Pricing starts at $49.99/month.

  • There’s a free version called FDO Quick Start that will give you basic information on more than 100,000 foundations.
  • You can also use the full database and access Foundation Center materials at more than 400 libraries, community centers, and nonprofit resource centers. Use this location finder, enter your zip code, and you’ll find the Funding Information Network nearest you.

Another popular subscription database is GrantStation.

  • As of this writing, 3-month subscriptions start as $219. GrantStation will run promotional pricing on annual subscriptions from time to time.
  • Some organizations will offer GrantStation as a membership benefit. For instance, when you subscribe to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, an annual subscription to GrantStation is included at no extra charge.

And, of course, the reference librarian at your local library can help you find foundations and guide you on your grant writing journey

Okay, I found a foundation that looks like they might support our nonprofit. Now what?

Once you’ve identified a foundation that looks like it could be a good fit for your organization and its needs, you’re ready to begin your true research.

Before you start writing, here are some things you need to know about each foundation:

  • Does the foundation accept applications?
  • How do I apply?
  • When do I apply
  • How much should I request?

The first question is key. If the foundation doesn’t accept unsolicited applications – or you haven’t been invited to apply – then the rest of the questions are moot.

That last question is important, too. The biggest mistake I see grant writers make is asking for too much money from a single foundation. Far too many organizations ask for what they need, instead of what a foundation is likely to award.

There are two reasons why you want to ask a foundation for an amount that might be less than the total amount you need:

  1. Most foundations don’t want to be your sole funding source, and very few foundations will fund an organization – or even a program – in its entirety.
  2. The reality is that most grant awards are less than most people think.

It stands to reason that larger foundations will award larger grants, and smaller foundations will make smaller awards. But how large and how small?

The 2017 Report on Grantmaking found that the average grant size was

  • $6,000 for a small foundation (with less than $1 million in assets),
  • $8,900 for a medium foundation (assets between $1 million and $10 million), and
  • $21,700 for a large foundation (assets over $10 million).

One of the quickest ways to have your proposal excluded from consideration is to ask for significantly more than the foundation typically awards.

Can I found out how much a foundation typically awards?

Yes! Even though only 10% of foundations have a website, you can still find information on 100% of them.

All you need is the foundation’s 990-PF tax form.

You can access 990s from websites like Guidestar and the National Center for Charitable Statistics among others.

It may seem daunting at first, but it’s surprisingly easy to read a foundation’s tax form.

A 990-PF will tell you things like

  • Whether or not the foundation accepts unsolicited proposals
  • The size of the foundation (assets)
  • How much the foundation awards each year (dollars)
  • How many awards they give in a year (number)
  • Who received those awards as well as the dollar amount of each award

This information will give you additional insight on the number and size of awards, as well as the type of organizations that a particular foundation has funded in the past.

The bottom line: It’s possible to do in-depth research on a foundation before you apply for a grant – and it’s essential that you do.

Want step-by-step instructions on how to use a 990-PF in your research? Click here and we’ll be happy to send you a PDF on “How to Read a 990-PF.”

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  • Richard Freedlund

    Good information, but one source you neglected to mention is your state's Secretary of State or Attorney General's websites, depending on the state. They often list foundations in your state and the causes they support.
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