How to tell if a Funder is a Good Match for Your Organization?

So you’ve found a funder who you think might give a grant to your organization.  Great!

Before you put the time and effort into writing a grant proposal, you want to know, is this funder a good match for your organization.

There are several things you can do to determine if this funder is a good fit.

  1. First, go to the funder’s website and read carefully about their funding priorities and their application procedures.  Note their address, phone number, and email address, if listed, so you can call or write them with questions later.
  2. Take a close look at the funder’s guidelines. One of the biggest mistakes I see organizations making is that they stretch the guidelines of a foundation to make an argument that they fit within them.  This almost never works in an organization’s favor.  Generally, foundations have particular areas or interests that they like to fund.  They aren’t interested, typically, in funding things that might, possibly, arguably, almost fall inside that category.  They want to fund things in that category.  If you have to make an argument that your organization or your program fits within the category, it probably doesn’t.  If you have any questions or doubts about whether or not you fit, call the funder and ask.  Proposals are far too much trouble to develop if yours will not even be read so don’t expend the effort to write one if the reader is going to reject it out of hand.  Make sure you’re going to be read before you write and submit.
  3. Next, go to  Search for foundation on Guidestar and pull the organization’s last 2-3 years of 990s.  The 990s, of course, are the tax forms that all charitable organizations with receipts of more than $25,000 annually are required to file with the IRS (note that organizations that are exempt for religious reasons may be exempt from filing). The 990 is a gold mine of information.  When grant writing, my favorite part of the 990 is found in Part XV – the Schedule of Grants and Contributions Paid or Pledged to be Given.  Often this schedule is completed as a list attachment to the 990 and the attachment is appended either to the very end of the 990 or near the very end of the 990 (sometimes I find it before or after a statement of investment activities). This list is a treasure trove for some doing grant research.  When I’m trying to determine if the funder is a good match for an organization that I’m writing a grant for, I search the Part XV list to see if there are other organizations on the list that are similar to my organization.  For example, if I am working for a hunger relief organization, I am looking to see if there are other hunger relief organizations on the list (and if not, are there organizations that address poverty, social inequalities, or social welfare?).  If there are no organizations similar to mine, I step back and take a long look at why I thought they might be a good fit.  Do I still think they might be a fit? Because if there are no such organizations, my initial thoughts that they might be a good fit are probably wrong.If there are other organizations like mine – jackpot!  Woo hoo!  Then, I look at how much money they typically give other hunger relief organizations.  The grant amounts they have given hunger relief organizations will also be listed in Part XV. I can also see the range of grant amounts that they give to other types of organizations and what their typical grant award is.
  4. Also on the 990, I take a look at the list of the Board of Trustees for the funder.  The Board members are listed on Part V of the 990.  Often, I circulate this list of board members to my board members to see if any of my board members know any of their board members so that they can make a connection to see if there would likely be any interest in a proposal from us.
  5. Don’t neglect the funder itself as a source of information.  Some of the questions I ask when I call include—after giving the funder a description of our program—“Do we sound like we might be a good fit for your foundation?” or “Does this sound like a program that you all might have an interest in receiving an application from?”  or “Does this program sound like one that your Trustees might want to hear more about?”I also ask “Are there any updates to your funding priorities or application procedures that I should know about that aren’t on your website yet?”If there isn’t a specified deadline, I also ask “Typically, when is the best time to apply?” Many funders give away more money at some meetings than at others.  Ask about this.  When does the fiscal year start?  Is it best to apply at the beginning of the year or the end? Or is there some other time that’s best to apply? One funder told me that it was best to apply in time to be considered at their June meeting.  When I asked why, he said that their June meeting was their longest meeting of the year so they had time to get through more application requests than any other meeting of the year.  Good to know! 
  6. Finally, if there is another nonprofit that I know well that has successfully received a grant from the funder I am interested in, I may call their development director or Executive Director and ask for advice.  I may simply say “We’re interested in applying for funding from the ABC Foundation and we were hoping to learn from your success.  Can you tell us what you learned from working with them?  Anything in particular that they are especially interested in or concerned about?  Anything you found especially important to address in your application?”  I might also ask them if they would be willing to help us out by sharing a copy of their successful application.  Assure them you’ll keep it confidence and not share it with others.

Grant applications are not a small undertaking.  Before you go to the time and trouble of writing a proposal, make sure that it’s a good use of your time. These steps will help you know whether or not the funder is a good match for your organization and your program or funding need.  They’ll also help you know how much funding you’ll likely be able to request and if you have any inside connections to the foundation that might help provide an introduction and a warm reception for your organization.