A Newbie's Guide to Finding Foundations
Let's talk grants and how to find them.
Wait, don't leave! I promise it's not as bad as it sounds. But where to start?
First things first: Are you registered with the IRS as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization? If not, the grant application process is a nonstarter. Nearly all foundations require you to have that 501(c)3 designation (or a fiscal sponsor), so if you're not quite there, you'll want to check out this article on first steps.
Recently obtained your 501(c)3? Congrats are in order! That was a fun process, wasn't it? And now you're ready to go for your first grant. Be aware that it may be slow going initially, as funders typically like to award grants to established nonprofits with a few years of proven successes. But every organization has to start somewhere, so please don't let that deter you.
Before you apply for the grant, you need to find the funder. If you've never applied for grants before, that task will seem pretty daunting. But lucky for you, I have five easy (and free!) ways to find those foundations and bring in that first grant check.
It sounds simple, but I've found funding opportunities just by Googling! Try a couple different searches, including your organization's focus and your location (both specific and broad). This is by no means the best way to find grant funding, but it's certainly the easiest. Even better, it can be done at your kid's soccer practice or while waiting for your doctor's appointment. What is there to lose?
2. Check the competition
Ok, maybe competition isn't the right word, because in the nonprofit world, we're all doing amazing, vital work. But are there organizations in your area doing similar work or serving the same underserved populations? Do those organizations publish an annual report that lists their funders? I think you can see where I'm going with this.
Checking out the annual reports of similar organizations can be a great way to not only find out who's funding other organizations, but also give you an idea of what type of funding they receive and what percentage comes from grants. If you're a new nonprofit, it may also give you some ideas for the content of your own annual report or publications. In general, it's always beneficial to know how other nonprofits in your area are communicating with and cultivating their donors.
If you want to learn even more about the finances of other nonprofits, you can look at their IRS 990s on Charity Navigator or Guidestar.
3. Mine the databases
There are plenty of grant databases that require a paid subscription, but before you sign up for anything, I recommend exploring all the free options first. By far, the best free option is the Foundation Directory Online, a massive database that has information on nearly 250,000 US foundations, including details on their grantmaking — who they fund and in what amounts.
I guess I should clarify: this isn't actually a free database. To the contrary, the robust Professional version comes with an annual price tag of $1,500! However, many libraries offer free access to FDO at their branch locations. Where I live, it's not available at the library around the corner, but it is available at the main county facility, so I'd start there.
Go to the website for your county library system and navigate to the section where they list the databases you can access through them. If you don't see FDO listed, give them a call. They may be able to tell you the closest library that can give you access.
4. Find friends with (funding) benefits
Do you live in an area with big corporations that employ lots of people? (Think pharmaceutical, financial, and tech companies.) Many of these corporations have a charitable arm that awards grant funding to nonprofits in close proximity to their office locations. However, most of these corporate foundation opportunities are by invitation only, so it can be hard to get your foot in the door.
Think about your network. Do you know anyone who works at one of these companies who may advocate for your organization? It's worth reaching out, especially if your nonprofit seems to fit within the corporation's funding priorities. If that doesn't work, you can also try finding someone who works with the corporate foundation on LinkedIn and send them a message. Just make sure you craft an effective message to send — resonant, but concise and straight to the point.
5. Connect with your reps
If the extent to your relationship with your elected officials is filling in a little oval next to their name in the voting booth, this might be an opportunity you hadn't considered. But these representatives are elected to serve individuals in their communities and could have information on county and state funding opportunities for your organization.
Reach out to your county commissioners, state representative, state senator, and anyone else in your local or state government. (Not sure who that is? Check here.) Tell them about your mission and ask them about any funding opportunities that exist for nonprofits.
If possible, try to schedule an in-person meeting. Even if there's no funding currently available, you will have formed a relationship with someone who might think of you down the road for funding opportunities, or minimally, post about your meeting on social media or in an email to constituents to help spread the word about your good work. Remember: elected officials love talking about how they're helping their communities!
If grant funding exists, it will likely be for special projects like capital improvements, not general operating funding. If it seems like one of the opportunities would be a good fit, ask them for a letter of support for the project. Admittedly, the government grant process is not the most user friendly, but if it gets you $50K for building improvements or a new transport vehicle, it's worth putting up with a little bureaucracy.
So you found yourself a funding opportunity. What now? My best piece of advice, as a grantee, is to start a conversation with the grantor. Many foundations aren't forthcoming with contact information, but some are. If you can find a phone number or email address for the funder, reach out to them. Tell them about your organization. Ask them if they think you'd be a good fit for funding. See if they have any helpful advice on the application process. They're taking note of the personal connection you've formed, and may weigh that in your favor when it comes time to review your grant proposal.
Good luck in your search! And if you're not quite there in the grant writing department, I'm always here to help.