Melody B. Hernandez
How to tell when a funder or funding opportunity is a 'good fit'
Finding funders who support the work of your organization is one of the first steps in the grant writing game. Full disclosure, this happens to be my very most favorite part of the process. Researching the guidelines and requirements, finding out who they have given to in the past and at what level, figuring out how to approach them, and creating a plan to introduce them to an organizations good work reminds me of the puzzle games I used to love as a child.
However, I was lucky enough to have an amazing pro teach me the ropes early on in my career. I recognize that, for many, this step in the process is overwhelming and confusing. Funders may use words and acronyms that are unclear, guidelines that are vague, long and detailed descriptions that seemingly are meant to exclude the vast majority of organizations, or numerous other frustrating examples.
So, once an opportunity shows up on your radar, here are some criteria that can help you determine whether or not you should add it to your list:
Do the funding restrictions exclude you? Always start with the funding restrictions. I'm going to say it again for the people in the back: Always start with the funding restrictions! I cannot tell you how many times that I've heard of organizations that gloss over this step and invest hours in preparing a proposal only to find they are excluded from even submitting an application due to location, budget size, age of organization, or myriad other restriction. In most cases, either the online system will not even let you submit the application, or an actual person will see that your responses disqualify your organization and will toss the application in the trash. When in doubt, reach out to the funder to clarify whether or not you qualify for the opportunity before investing time in an application that will not even be read.
Check to see what their funding priorities are. Many funders outright list what they like to fund. They may refer to this as 'funding areas', 'funding priorities', 'focus areas', 'giving guidelines' or even 'what we fund'. Funding priorities are exactly what they sound like: the areas the funder has identified as a priority for their giving. These could include geographical location, subject matter, demographics of the population served, etc. While less strict than the funding restrictions, it is important to spend some time upfront assessing whether or not your organization or program fits with in their focus. If the funder has a website (only 15% do), they usually have these funding priorities listed. They also can be found on their 990 or on the search tool you use (Foundation Directory Online, Guidestar, etc.). Again, when in doubt reach out to the funder and ask. Think of it this way, they don't want to read a bunch of proposals that have nothing to do with their work. The call is a great way to help both of you.
Check to see what other organizations and projects they are funding. Those funders who do have a website often have a listing of recently awarded grants. All funders are required to disclose this information on their 990, however it is often a very short line item with the name of the organizaiton, the amount and the purpose (which could simply say 'charitable purposes). Do some digging and find out what organizations they fund. The answer may surprise you - maybe their website says they fund arts organizations, but their 990 shows that they give a yearly grant to the ballet in their city and the rest of their funding goes to various social services organizations. Probably not worth your time if you are seeking funding for a mural project, for example.
Check the logistics of when and how they accept proposals. As you are working your way through thousands of potential funders and funding opportunities, note when and how they accept proposals. If it is due tomorrow, maybe earmark it for next year. Also, many funders require applications to be submitted long before funds are disbursed (I find this to be true most often for art focused funders). Sometimes proposals must be submitted a year or more before the project is to take place. If you are looking to fund a project that will occur 6-months from now, the timeline of funding will be an important part of your research. Make a note of the application process requirements as you go along. This will save you work in the long run. I usually add a link to the application website (or the address of the funder if they are one of the few that still accept mailed proposals), the due date, the application window, and any other information pertinent to the application process.
It is worth noting that while there are nearly 90,000 foundations in the U.S., it is only roughly 40% who accept unsolicited proposal. The rest either are restricted to giving to one organization (for example, a foundation created for the sole purpose of funding a hospital), give to the same organizations year after year, like to proactively search out new opportunities, or only work with organizations who develop a personal relationship with a staff or Board member.
This means that cultivation will be a necessary part of your journey. You gotta build a relationship, baby! My next post will delve deeper into cultivation and how to proceed once you have your list of potential funders in hand.
In the meantime, share your potential funder research stories, thoughts, and tips below!