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Identifying Your Best Funding Prospects

Careful evaluation
of your research
leads to success


With more than 100,000 foundations in the U.S., narrowing your prospect list to those most likely to fund your organization is the most important step in the grant-seeking (and winning) process.

First, gain access to an online funder database. This is an essential tool for research.

Research who funds your competitors by searching one of the online databases by grant recipient. You frequently can also find donor lists in nonprofits’ brochures and on their websites.

  • The strongest indicator of a foundation’s interest in what you do is its current support of nonprofits similar to yours. Beware of grants made years ago. The foundation’s interests might have changed over time.

  • The more nonprofits in your field a foundation supports, the more likely they are to add yours to their list.

  • If a foundation supports only one similar organization, it might be a result of a personal relationship and not a program focus of the foundation. Further investigation of the foundation’s interests will be required before adding such a foundation to your prospect list.


Dig deep into the prospective funders’ interests and restrictions through their profile in an online database and their websites.

  • The most common restriction is “no unsolicited proposals accepted.” If they state this, they mean it. Your only hope of applying successfully to such a foundation would be to be invited to apply through a personal connection to a board or staff member. (See step 5 below.)

  • Geographic restrictions come next. These restrictions can apply to where your nonprofit is located, where its work is carried out, or both.

  • Foundations usually make grants only in certain program areas. Read these carefully! Support of technology does not necessarily mean they will support the purchase of computers for schools. Ditto for an interest in education. Beyond what they say they support, lists of grants they have actually made (and the specific programs they funded), present the best window into what they will support.


Determine typical grant amounts. Family foundations (that is, those run by the original donors or their descendants) might have long lists of small grants made at the behest of individual board members in addition to larger grants, but larger foundations will likely have a limited range in which they make grants.

  • Determine if the amount you are seeking fits within the foundation’s typical range.

  • If a foundation’s grant range is as large as or larger than your total program or organizational budget, you will not be successful. Few foundations will want to be the sole funder of a program. (This also indicates that, if you applied, you would be competing against large nonprofits with substantial program history and well-staffed fundraising operations.)

  • If a foundation’s range is more in the $1,000-$5,000 range and you have a multimillion-dollar budget, it might be hard for you to convince them that their small grant will make a significant difference to your program, but it can be done.


Look for personal and professional connections. Foundations and nonprofits are made up of people, and people give to people.

  • Distribute to your board and senior staff the names of everyone associated with a foundation. You might be surprised at what connections pop up.

  • Do you have a current funder who is particularly passionate about the work you do? Most online databases will allow you to discover a trustee’s other associations, possibly providing you with a ready-made advocate at a new foundation.

  • Look for potential third-degree connections. For example, if your board chair knows Mr. Smith, who works at the law firm of Smith & Jones, and Ms. Jones is on the board of the foundation you’re interested in, your board chair might be willing to ask Mr. Smith to put in a good word with Ms. Jones!


Having done all of your homework, you’re ready to review and follow the foundation’s application instructions to the letter, knowing that you are applying to a strong prospect. Careful research increases the success of your proposals and makes for a well-funded nonprofit.

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