A friend of mine wrote me this question and suggested that I answer it on my blog:

Hey, Rebecca, a while back, I was a member of the Junior League and I was assigned to the committee to write grants for the League. Problem is, they had not received any grants in recent history, and had absolutely no records of any that they applied for or any that would be appropriate. (I have no idea what the person assigned to that committee the previous year did, either.)  I had all the information I could possibly need about the organization, its projects, finances, etc., but absolutely no clue where to start looking for grants. What would you have done in that situation?

The fun and exciting news for those of us in fundraising is that starting from scratch happens to us all the time!  We often begin without the kind of basic information we need.  In this case, at least, my friend had the financial and organizational information she needed, she just didn’t have any history about what worked or didn’t in the organization’s grant writing efforts. She wasn’t at ground zero, but she wasn’t exactly much above it. 

As far as where to start:  The first thing I would do is assess the organization’s needs:  What does the organization need most?  Whatever the group’s most significant needs are, that’s what I would try to to find a funder for.

I’d also have a conversation with the group’s leadership—the Executive Committee, perhaps—to brainstorm and prioritize all the group’s needs—so that as a grants writer I could be on the look-out for grant opportunities that match different needs of the organization.

I suspect that my friend’s larger question about where to start is about where to begin looking for opportunities so I’ll offer several suggestions.  The answer really depends on your budget and your community’s resources. 

If you’re lucky, you’ll have access to a subscription to the Foundation Directory Online. The cities of New York, Cleveland, San Francisco, Atlanta, and Washington D.C. all have Foundation Directory libraries that you can visit. At these libraries, you can use the foundation directory at no charge and the librarians offer you assistance with your search.  There are also free (or low-cost) classes on topics of interest to fundraisers and other nonprofit personnel (including board members) and books that are available to borrow (again, at my favorite price: free, free, free!). 

If you don’t live in a city with a foundation library, don’t despair. Call your nearest AFP Chapter’s leadership and ask who has a subscription near you. My county’s library does not have one, but the public library one county over does. I can walk in and use that library’s subscription to the Foundation Directory for free (if I lived in the County, I could have access remotely via the internet). That library’s subscription is actually sponsored by a local community foundation, another good place to call to see if there are subscriptions available to which you can have access so fi your local libraries don’t have a subscription, check with your nearest community foundation to see if it does.

Of course, you can also subscribe online to the Foundation Directory Online, but be prepared for the sticker shock. It’s (today) $2,388 for the year for the full, professional version, which is the version I recommend. Occasionally, there are sales. Because of the hefty price tags, if you can access the database through a free, public subscription, that’s definitely the way to go. 

There are other, less expensive ways to find out about grant opportunities.  Both Grant Watch and Grant Station have searchable online databases.  Although their databases are not as comprehensive as the Foundation Directory Online, they’re prices are so much more accessible ($199 and $149 per year respectively) and each has a weekly eNewsletter that shares new announcements of grant opportunities and deadlines. Right now, the Chronicle of Philanthropy has recently partnered with Grant Station and a subscription to the Chronicle also offers you a subscription to Grant Station (love it!).

Then, there are also the free ways to research funders.  The most significant of these is, of course, government funding. I don’t mention it first because not everyone qualifies for government funding. Faith-based organizations often don’t qualify, unless they’re seeking funding for programs that don’t proselytize and have a secular purpose such as feeding the hungry or offering shelter to the homeless. Further, even those who qualify, often choose not to pursue government funding because, simply put, it’s not easy. To apply, you need a DUNS # and CAGE #, and MPIN.  You have to set up a gov.org account with someone authorized to submit. Then you have to write and submit the funding application.  If you might be interested, go ahead now and apply for a DUNS number because getting one can take a while. Then, start searching for funding opportunities on Grants.gov.

This takes a little more detective work and determination.  Read annual reports, newsletters, and websites of similar organizations.  Who is funding other organizations with missions like yours? Who funds other organizations in your geographic area? Which funders are offering grants to organizations serving the same population that you serve?  Make note of those funders. Then, look those funders up on Guidestar.org

You have to have a Guidestar.org account to pull all the information you need on Guidestar, but the accounts are free.  It takes only a minute to create an account.  You simply have to enter your name and email address to set up your account.  Guidestar, like your organization, is a nonprofit that depends on public support (consider giving:  it provides a wonderful service). 

When you look up a funder on Guidestar, you can pull up its “financial info” found in its 990 (its tax form).  Near the end of the tax form will be a list of grants that the funder distributed.  The list will tell you how many grants the funder made, the size of the grants, which organizations the funder gave money to.  Near the beginning of the 990, there will be contact information (address and phone number) for the foundation. Their application process will also be described.  You can follow up with questions by calling or writing an LOI. 

So, to answer my friend’s questions, that’s how I would begin if I were in her situation where I were asked to begin by starting to write grants for an organization that had not written grants in the past—identifying fundable needs, researching possible funders, and then going for it by writing.  The only other thing I would say is that my friend wouldn’t want to leave the situation the same as she found it.  It would be helpful for her to start a file (electronic or paper), to give to the next person in her role, documenting her work to keep the next person from repeating it. I find that grant research is endless.  This morning, for one organization I work with, with one grants’ database, I got through the letters A-C.  I’ll document in my notes that I stopped at the letter C.  This way, I won’t search the letters A, B, and C again and I won’t forget to search D and E next time. 

Have a question you’d like me to answer, send me an email.

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