An Insider’s Guide to Foundation Fundraising – Part 3

Four Steps to Successfully Identify Prospective Funders

Good, solid research is essential to identifying prospective funders and crafting a solid grant proposal. Randomly sending letters of interest or a cookie-cutter application will almost certainly engender ill will from the funder who processes the information.  It is far more efficient (and beneficial!) to send out a few well-researched requests that speak directly to a funder’s interests and guidelines.


A successful research strategy includes these four steps:

  1. Develop a broad list of prospective funders.

There are tens of thousands of foundations that award grants, including public charities, corporate giving programs, and private and community foundations. These funders provide a range of support – everything from cold, hard cash to technical assistance and training. However, only a small portion of these funders will be a good match for your organization.

Public charities and private foundations are what most people think of when a foundation comes to mind. These two types of entities may have very similar funding interests and application guidelines; however, they are differentiated by the number and variety of people who support them.

A public charity receives significant financial support from the public-at-large, other foundations or government agencies. Community foundations are also public charities. Grantmaking decisions are often made by a panel of community members, stakeholders and allies. Examples of public charities that provide grants are: The Ms. Foundation for Women, the Appalachian Community Fund, New Mexico Community Foundation and the Fund for Idaho.

Conversely, a private foundation is often controlled by members of a family or by a few individuals.  A private foundation receives a majority of its income from a small number of sources and/or investment income. In addition, corporate foundations are private foundations whose resources come from for-profit businesses. In these foundations, grantmaking decisions are generally at the discretion of family members, their proxies or company employees. The Pew Charitable Trust, Newman’s Own Foundation, Annie E. Casey Foundation and the UPS Foundation are examples of private foundations.

As noted in Part 2 of this series (Insider’s Guide: Research Strategies and Finding Information), there are a significant number of resources available to help grant seekers find potential funding matches.  In order to maximize the possibility of receiving a grant award, it is critical to start with a broad list of funders based on their fields of interest, geographic restrictions, and grant size.

The indices of foundation directories can be quite helpful in narrowing down your list. Many of these directories list funders by interest area, geographic region, or target population.  Hone in on the foundations that seem to have the greatest degree of overlap with your work.

  1. Refine the list to focus on the most viable funding prospects.

If your organization’s mission is to preserve wetlands, you want to ensure that the funders you approach share your vision.  A foundation that focuses on improving the quality of public schools will not be interested in your work – even if there are public schools that are adjacent to endangered wetlands. A grant maker that has funded organizations working to reclaim prairie land, however, may be willing to consider your work as well.

How do you refine your list? Start by paying attention to the type and size of grants a funder has given in the past. You can often find this information on the foundation’s web site or in their annual report. Usually there will be a short blurb about each of their grantees and information on the size of the grant. Look not only at the current year’s giving, but also the prior two years. This will provide insight into the direction of the funder’s strategic priorities.

Don’t be put off by foundations that say they will not accept unsolicited proposals.  If the foundation looks like it would otherwise be a perfect match, it’s time to do some research.  Many foundations have a public list of their staff, founders, board members and major donors.  Once you have identified some of their key players, you can play “who knows who knows who” with your own staff, board and members.  Given the adage of “six degrees of separation,” you may find connections between your networks and the funder. Use those connections to gain an introduction and begin to develop a relationship.

  1. Verify information found in directories with the funder in question

Unfortunately, foundation directories may contain information that is either incomplete or outdated. Deadlines, focus areas, grant sizes and applications may change without being reflected in on-line or printed resources.  Most on-line databases ask the funder to update their profile on an annual basis. However, this task often falls to the bottom of a busy program officer’s to do list.

To make sure your information is current, cross-check the data with the funder’s web site or their program staff. If you are not certain, request the most recent copy of their funding guidelines and application. Then follow the directions!

  1. Contact the program officer before sending in your application.

Most grant applicants are wary of contacting a foundation’s program officer. However, program officers can provide information that may make a huge difference in an applicant’s quest for funding.  In general, most program officers are willing to speak with grant applicants. Unless there is a specific “no call” policy, it is safe to assume that you can initiate contact.

Although it seems obvious, it is good to remember that program officers are people too.  As with any new relationship, first impressions can have a lasting impact.  A positive set of interactions will influence the way the funder will think about your organization and talk about you with colleagues. Yes, funders do share information with each other and a negative first impression can become a hot topic when funders gather.

In addition, take advantage of the most opportune moments to make contact. Make sure to initiate contact well before the proposal deadline. This indicates that you have given some thought to the process and provides the program officer the mental space to answer your questions more thoroughly. Don’t call just before a proposal deadline when phones are ringing off the hook. In these moments program officers can become quite harried and they will not be able to focus their attention on your organization.

Before placing a call, read the foundation’s grantmaking guidelines thoroughly and compile a list of clarifying questions that will help you craft a strong proposal.  Finally, ascertain that you have the correct pronunciation and name of the program officer.  There is no quicker way to start off on the wrong foot than to ask to speak with a long-departed staff person or to mangle the program officer’s name.

Remember, foundations receive a large number of inquiries about their funding. They also receive stacks of unsolicited materials. By identifying and then refining your list of prospects, you stand a better chance of having your proposal move forward instead of ending up in the recycling bin.