How to Research Better and Raise More Money With Foundations

Guest Post by Jayme Klein, Helen Brown Group

As we all know, there is never enough funding for the worthy causes in the world. There are nearly as many funders out there as there are people seeking the funding. As a researcher, it can seem extraordinarily overwhelming to find just the right funder (or five) for the cause at hand. There are a few ways, however, to search smart, read between the keywords and get better results.

Assess the needs of the request

Often, a corporate/foundation research request can be so broad that searching seems like it will take forever. There are also those requests that we’ve gotten that are very specific. Is there anything that will be a match? Reading between the lines and asking follow-up questions can make your job a lot easier.

  • What kind of support is needed for the project (capital, scholarships, program support)? 
  • How much funding does the requester need? A dollar range is helpful to avoid skipping over a worthy prospect.
  • Is it a multi-year request? Some funders prefer to give a single year’s worth of support before re-evaluating future grants to any organization.
  • Who has your requester or related parties spoken with about potential funding? What organizations have funded the project before? Knowing this information ahead of time can help you to avoid wasting time on entities already known to your client.
  • Are you eligible for government support, or only for private funding?

Broaden your terms (no, really)

It might seem counterintuitive to give yourself more results to sift through- but bear with me. Although some funders are specific about where they will fund, there might be a match in states or regions adjacent to yours that fund programs in your subject area. By looking through their past giving, you might find that the foundation in question might just issue grants more broadly than it appears.

In addition to exploring the geographic area, consider looking at funders that specify an interest in areas similar to yours. The National Taxonomy of Exempt Entities (NTEE) assigns codes to classify areas of interest in nonprofit funders. Codes are given for both areas of giving (A-Z) and common codes for types of funding (numerical). The letter/number combination makes it easy for researchers to figure out who funds what and how they do it. 

For example, if you’re trying to find funding for a research study on plants, don’t just look for organizations with an interest in botany. What other areas might fit under a larger funding umbrella? While searching, broaden your keywords to other areas that might offer more potential, such as biology, the environment, or conservation. Similarly, don’t just look at foundations providing strictly monetary support; consider those that fund research institutes or advocacy organizations. 

Once you have a list of results, sort, sort, sort. Export your list and view it by asset amount, by city or state, or by the number of grants given to help you prioritize your work and bring different funders to the surface. Change the sort order a few times to keep things interesting and avoid bleary eyes. Delete anything that looks unhelpful.

Consider what they’re really funding

With this list in mind, let’s dig into the specifics. Usually, the last few years of SEC form 990s can make or break the potential of any given foundation as a funder. Within these documents is the real story- where their money is going. Do they issue numerous small grants? Or do they just have a few large grants each year? Some foundations provide a mix of dollar amounts to a greater range of funding recipients. Knowing the scope and scale of a funder’s intentions will help to determine if you are fighting for a few seats at the table, or a few tables in the room. Some other points to consider:

  • Is the foundation accepting applications, or do they only fund previous grant recipients? If any potential funders didn’t show up on your requester’s list, follow up to see if they’ve funded your organization before.
  • How much do they give away each year and to how many recipients? Do they fund the same organizations year after year, or do you see variety?
  • When was the last year that they filed a 990? If it has been awhile and the assets are low, they may no longer be active.
  • Who’s on their board? If there are connections to your organizations, move those to the top of your prospect list.
    • Similarly, if individual addresses are listed for board members, see if any live or work in your area.

Don’t be afraid of the database! Try a variety of keywords and searches in iWave’s foundation tab and see what works. By considering the factors above in your search for potential funding, it can help you to do your best and most efficient work. You might just uncover a few gems in the process. Good luck!


About the author: Jayme began her career in development in 2008 at the Rutgers University Foundation, where she spent seven years in prospect management and research. She also spent several years at Monmouth University as their senior prospect research analyst. She has worked as both a volunteer and consultant for non-profits in the areas of research and writing. She earned a bachelor of arts degree from Drew University and a master of communication and information sciences degree from Rutgers University. She is a member of APRA. Jayme joined The Helen Brown Group in April 2019.


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