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Becoming a “Grant Detective”: Best Practices for Grantseekers

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Special to the Philanthropy Journal 

By Sarah Mann Willcox

The job of grant writer should include a fair amount of detective work. Much of the work in seeking grants comes before the pen hits the paper (or maybe, before you even start typing into an online grant form). News releases and articles like those curated in the Philanthropy Journal’s NC Grants Roundup and Philanthropy Journal News, can be helpful tools when researching whether your nonprofit or project is a good fit for a foundation.

Current grants from foundations can be a good indication of projects or organizations that are helping foundations to achieve their missions. If you recognize similarities between your work and those grants being awarded, that can be a way to narrow down where to start when searching for new grant opportunities.

Here are some more tips on how to decide if your program or nonprofit is a good fit for a foundation:

  1. Start with the foundation’s website. Many have put a lot of time into making their processes and priorities easy to interpret and understand. Some websites may even include tips for navigating their grant proposal, requests for proposals, or major foundation initiatives for which your organization might be a logical partner.
  2. Check out their 990. Some foundations have limited capacity or are entirely volunteer or board run. For more information on those with limited information on the internet, you can research their publicly available 990s. They are free in PDF form from Foundation Center or Guidestar <add links>. They will show asset size and previous grants that may help you decide how to “right size” your ask of a particular foundation.
  3. Access Foundation Center. Foundation Center offers subscriptions that allow you to access foundation 990 data in a more aggregated way. You can search by funding areas, geographic location, average grant size and more. You can access subscriptions at public libraries and other partners for free – click here to find a location near you. http://foundationcenter.org/ask-us/funding-information-network
  4. Learn about the different types of foundations. Understanding each type will help you design your approach. The Council on Foundations outlines them here: https://www.cof.org/content/foundation-basics
  5. Don’t be afraid to call. If you’ve done the research suggested above, but could use a little extra guidance on whether or not to submit a proposal, don’t be afraid to call the foundation. Program officers can be your best advocates in a board room – it is their job to put forth proposals that help meet the Foundation’s mission. They also don’t want you to spend your valuable time writing a proposal that couldn’t have gotten funded, so try not to get too discouraged if they tell you that your nonprofit is not a fit. (A bit of a side note – the exception to this rule, of course, is if they ask you not to call or contact the foundation.)
  6. Keep in touch. Just because you aren’t a fit now, doesn’t mean you won’t be in the future. Even when you’ve ruled out a particular foundation, keep an eye on it from time to time. Priorities change, and you could find yourself in a beautiful relationship with a grantmaker sometime in the future.

Additional grantseeking resources:


Sarah Mann Willcox is the Program Director of the NC Network of Grantmakers, an organization that serves as “connective tissue” for N.C.’s funding community. In her role she works directly with foundations that fund throughout the state on best practices and foundation operations. Before joining NCNG, Sarah served as the Director of Sustainability (code for “fundraiser”) at the N.C. Center for Nonprofits for six years.

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