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Prospecting for Grant Gold

So, you're a non-profit with a brilliant project, big goals, and enthusiastic partners. Now you just need a funder that sees how much potential you have to offer you financial support! That's where grant research comes in. The process of identifying prospects can be overwhelming. There are thousands upon thousands of foundations, accelerators, private donors, corporations, and government entities offering grants. So how do you wade through all of them and find the opportunities that fit your project the best?



Image: Hand putting money in a donation jar


1) List out the following things before you start:


-How much money you'll need (you can overestimate by a little, but don't inflate it too much or you'll limit your opportunities. Some grants have very small caps.)


-What you need funding for. Think categories like Personnel (paying salaries and benefits), Capital Projects (purchasing a building, remodeling, construction of any sort), Operating Expenses, (keeping the lights on, supplies, transportation, etc.), a Project (say you're going to start a mentoring program or a summer camp for kids with disabilities. These are projects.) Events, (maybe an awards ceremony or a retreat, a science fair, etc.) Some grants only cover certain categories.


-Your key words. Think about words like "education," "healthcare," "crime," "social justice," etc. to describe your sector. Then think about the specific populations you want to help. Maybe try "rural," "urban," "LGBTQ," "indigenous," "women," "children," etc. Get a list of 5-8 solid, descriptive key words to try. You'll need to enter these in grant search sites.


-All your locations. If you only operate in one small town in rural Nebraska, this is easy - you'll just need your county of operations. If your organization has impact in a certain region of the US, list out the states you'll serve. If you have global impact, think about the different countries. There are tiny local grants for your small Nebraska operation, and there are grants that will fund your worldwide operation too. Just know your impact area because some grants only offer to organizations serving certain locations.


-What kind of organization you are. If you're one thing wanting to become another (ie. a small business wanting to become a non-profit), PAUSE! Go ahead and get yourself registered as what you want to be first, then go for grants. Most won't accept "501(c)3 status in progress."



Image: A box of goods. In-kind grants will give you supplies or technology instead of cash.


2. Check out the big grant databases, like grants.gov, Pivot, Instrumentl, and Foundation Directory Online. Be warned - most of these are not free, and some are very expensive, though some do come with a free trial. You'll have to register for all of them, and they will clutter up your inbox. You can easily spend a couple hundred dollars purchasing something like Instrumentl. If you're going to use it regularly, it may be worth the cost. If not, it's best to hire a grant writer to do your research because they probably already subscribe. A grant writer generally charges between $300 and $500 for a list of 10-12 prospects. The cost can be hard to swallow, but once you think about the time it's going to save you, you may find it worthwhile. Do also be aware that some of these databases will only show you a certain TYPE of grant. For example a government database isn't going to show you small private grants or grants for religious organizations. Some databases will only show you religious foundation grants.


3. Use your keywords from step 1 to limit your results. Usually I can tell I need to add more keywords if I get over 100 matches in Instrumentl (the database I use.) Keep playing around with your keywords until you get around 30 matches, because now you need to go through each one of these. Your database should give you a blurb about each potential opportunity.


4. When you click on an opportunity, you'll see a lot of info. Here's what to look for:


-Deadline. If the deadline is in, say, a week, you may want to pass that one up. If it's 2 or 3 months out, you're golden. Some may show as 'not open.' You can keep an eye out or set an alert for these.


-Average amount awarded. Some grants may say "$5 million awarded," but the average amount given might be $2000 per organization. If that's the case, don't submit your 2 million dollar project to this grant. Look for an average close to what you're asking for, unless you're going to combine grants, which can be done, and which we'll talk about later.


-How the money can be used. Look for a section called "funding uses" or "restrictions." Many grants can't be used for operating expenses. Some won't fund capital projects like construction or renovation. Some can't be used to hire staff. Make sure they're willing to fund what you need.


-How the money is given. Be on the lookout for "in-kind" grants that will give you specific supplies or technology. If they're giving what you need, cool. If what you need is cash, then that grant that's giving away Adidas tennis shoes (yes, there's one of those) may not be for you. If you're an animal shelter needing to buy food, then the in-kind grants that just ship you loads of food are perfect.


-The application process. You'll generally need to click on the grant's specific website for this. Some grants are as easy as an online form. Most will only allow you to see all the application requirements once you've registered. It's a dirty trick, and it drives grant writers nuts. Almost all grants will require a budget, an executive summary (roughly a page about your project), a description of the population served, and a problem statement. The lengths of the required narratives can be 2 pages to 90. The number of attachments can be 3-45, though you can expect to have to attach last year's financial statements, a letter of support from a partner organization, evidence of your non-profit/tax exempt status, and the lead persons resume. If the application process looks terribly daunting, it may be time to hire a grant writer. We can walk you through all this.


-Webinar dates. Most big grants will hold a webinar about the application process. Attend this, or ask your grant writer to do so. These are really helpful.



Image: People organizing a project


5. Make yourself a spreadsheet of the opportunities you want to try for. Include the name of the opportunity, the website, the deadline, the average amount, and any notes to yourself on what you need to apply. This will let you see what you should be working on at any given time at a glance. If you decide to hire a grant-writer, share this with them.



So how do you know how many grants to apply for? There's no perfect number - it depends on your needs and how many are a good fit. I always advise clients to go for 3 in the first round. Go for the 3 that best align to your specific goals. There are a lot of 'general' grants out there that will say things in the description like 'we fund what we like.' Cool, but literally everyone goes for these, so the competition pool is huge. The more specific the grant is, the better. Most grants won't give you lots of feedback post submission, but some do. If you get feedback but don't get awarded funded, try another round of 3. Do that until you're awarded the amount you need. And like I mentioned before, it's ok if you're awarded multiple grants unless the funder specifies that they like to be the only grantor (which is rare.) In fact, some donors like to be one of several supporting your project.


Searched for prospects but don't see anything that meets your needs? Remember, grants go in cycles. December is dead time in grant land. Try again in January, when lots of grants will open. There's also another round of grants that open in the Spring. I'd recommend re-searching every 3 months for new opportunities.