Applying for grants can be a daunting process. You know you have an amazing program and are serving an unmet need in your community, but how do you convey that information in a way that is impactful to the nameless, faceless committee who will be reviewing your grant application? You get to know that committee as well as you can before you send them your application to ensure you are writing to your audience.

Here are a few tips to get you started:

✅ Research the online presence and any newsletters or articles about the funder. Make note of their mission statement, giving priorities, funding categories, and geographic region. When you look through the website, social media posts, and news articles, are there any common themes that you notice? Are there any phrases or terms that appear repeatedly – community, belonging, social justice, faith? Make note of these and try to incorporate them within your grant application. As you look at social media, is there any theme to the types of organizations or projects that are highlighted? This will give you a bit of insight into the projects that get the attention of the staff or the priorities for the funder.

✅ Review the funder’s 990 for the past three years. The 990 will tell you:

  1. How much money the foundation gave away in charitable donations.
  2. The number of grants awarded – does this foundation give out 10 grants per year or 100? Were the same organizations funded every year or were different organizations funded each year? This information will give you an idea of your likelihood of success in applying for a grant and help you to determine if it is worth the time and effort required to submit the application.
  3. What was the average amount of the grants funded? If the foundation gave one grant for $100,000, a few grants for $50,000, but most grants were under $10,000, you know that your first ask should be under $10,000.
  4. Where were the organizations they funded located geographically? Sometimes foundations will list a broad geographic location on their website because there is one organization they fund that is a great distance away. However, the vast majority of the organizations funded are in the same county as their primary location. Looking at the 990, this trend becomes apparent.
  5. Notice trends in the types of organizations funded. Were the majority of organizations funded faith-based, organizations that have a common mission, or grouped into foundations with very general giving categories? Does the 990 show a clear preference for specific types of organizations for grant funding?

Not all funders are open and available to these direct connections and limit contact with grant-seeking organizations to electronic submission of the grant application or electronic submission of questions.

✅ Get to know the grant manager/program officer. If possible, set-up a meeting with a staff member from the foundation. Staff members can provide details about funding priorities, trends within the foundation, and what types of grants would be best received. They frequently can provide feedback about the grant you are planning to submit that will increase your likelihood of success. Staff members can also provide insights about the people who are making the final decisions on grants – is the grant committee comprised of lawyers and corporate officers, a rotating committee of staff members from a corporation, or is it members of a family who make the final decision? What type of information within the grant application does the committee focus on when they are making a determination about funding? These are questions that can sometimes be answered by foundation staff. Not all funders are open and available to these direct connections and limit contact with grant-seeking organizations to electronic submission of the grant application or electronic submission of questions. If the funding organization you are looking into is open and available, building strong relationships with the staff at the foundation is a worthwhile investment for your organization.

Question:  What has your organization done to gain a better understanding of your funders, and how has that impacted your success in submitting and receiving grants?

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Ellen Stone
Ellen Stone served in organizations working with individuals with disabilities for over fifteen years, progressing from direct care positions to an executive director-level position. She has a comprehensive background in engaging and advocating for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the delivery of services across the nonprofit sector. Working within the disability sector provided her with the opportunity to work with nonprofit, public service, and government organizations in the fields of health, education, employment, public policy, housing, recreation, and community services. She understands the challenges of working in small nonprofit organizations. There is never enough time, and every staff member wears many different hats! The Executive Director, in particular, seems to need a degree in business, human resources, nonprofit management, and the specific area of the organization’s mission. She enjoys putting her knowledge to work supporting nonprofits - consulting in fundraising, grant writing, and capacity building, and working with the nonprofit staff to ensure the long-term sustainability of organizations that are vital to thriving communities across the country.
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