Grant Seekers Toolkit Step 2: Prospect Research

Once you have defined the project(s) for which you would like to seek foundation support, the next step is to find the best possible funders.

You will need to:

  • Identify a pool of foundations that might consider your proposal;
  • Create a target list of foundations that appear to be the best fit with your organization and project; and
  • Individually research these top prospects.

Who’s Out There? Identifying a Pool of Prospects

There are nearly 100,000 foundations in the United States. How do you find the ones that are right for you? Fortunately, there are several resources to help you develop a pool of viable prospective funders:

  • Many libraries across the country are Foundation Center Funding Information Network locations. You can download a list of cooperating collections here.
  • Call your local nonprofit council, if you have one.
  • The Foundation Directory Online is a subscription database that provides information on foundations nationwide and their grantmaking. It is an excellent tool for identifying prospects. The Grant Center is licensed to use the Foundation Directory Online in the preparation of custom prospect research for public radio and television stations. Your station may find it useful to subscribe to a searchable database service such as Foundation Center Online if you are: seeking national funding; regularly generating new pools of foundation prospects, especially over a sizable region; and/or regularly conducting in-depth foundation research. However, most stations will probably only need information specific to their state or region. Given this, it would be most economical and efficient to purchase a print directory of foundations in your state/region or, if available, subscribe to an online version of the same.
  • Foundation Finder, offered by the Foundation Center, provides free access to basic information on foundations nationwide, including their tax returns (PF-990s).
  • Foundation Search is a subscription database that offers searchable information on foundations nationwide.
  • The Chronicle of Philanthropy offers extensive news and information on foundations and individual donors, including information on upcoming grant opportunities and recent grants.
  • Google can be a good source for information on prospects, as well as Google News Search. To get a sense of the range of foundations that might be interested in supporting your project, you can start with a broad search such as: (NAME OF STATE) + MEDIA (or JOURNALISM or BROADCASTING or PUBLIC RADIO) + FOUNDATIONS. Depending on the nature of the project you want to propose, you might also search for foundations in your region that are interested in “civil society” or “globalization” or “arts”.
  • A service of the Foundation Center, Grant Space offers information on grantseeking and funders, pertinent to non-profits working in a wide variety of fields.
  • Guidestar is a great source for access to foundation tax returns (PF-990s).
  • Lexis-Nexis is a fee service that provides searchable access to extensive news and other content. It can be a good source for information both on foundations and on individuals.
  • Noza Search is a database of charitable donations. While portions are fee-based, access to foundation information is free.
  • The Foundation Center produces the Philanthropic News Digest, which includes short articles and updates on recent grants and upcoming grant opportunities.

Other Organizations

When you’re looking for foundation prospects, you should also be sure to pay attention to who is funding other organizations in your community or region. You can sometimes get this information online by visiting the websites of like-minded organizations in your area and seeing if they list their supporters. Or, when you go to a play or a concert, or to a museum or library, pick up their annual report, save their program, and look at their donor recognition walls and plaques. You might be surprised by how many ideas this generates.

Creating a Target List

When you have collected a list of foundations that might support your station, it’s time to sort out the ones that look like the best targets. In general, the most important things to look for are:

  • Has this foundation made grants to organizations or projects similar to my own?
  • Does this foundation support organizations and projects that are like mine in mission, action, and spirit? Even if the foundation doesn’t have a history of supporting media, it might still be a good prospect if it funds other community institutions involved in the arts, public affairs, community engagement or education.
  • Is this foundation particularly committed to my local community or region?
  • Do we have any contacts with board or staff members at this foundation?
  • Do I have some other piece of information that leads me to believe that this foundation will be a good fit for us?

If you can answer yes to one or more of these questions, then it’s worth putting the foundation on your target list and advancing it for further research. You should expect that your target list will evolve over time. As you conduct more research, you’ll find that some foundations that initially looked like good fits really aren’t, and some that looked questionable turn out to be promising.

Researching Your Top Prospects

Once you have created a target list, the next step is to research the foundations that look like the best fits for your organization and project. This is a very important step. Foundation staff often bemoan the number of people who call them to ask about applying for a grant without first reading the foundation’s guidelines or visiting the foundation’s website. The more information you can gather about your prospects, the better able you will be to place a compelling request before them.

In many ways, it can be useful to think of foundations as individuals writ large. Like individuals, foundations care about their work. They are well-educated. They can be moody. They have opinions. They want to know that they are making a difference.

Fundamentally, the most important thing to remember about foundations is that they are interested in making the world a better place. They might differ wildly in what they understand that to mean, but their goal is to invest money in projects that they believe matter. Your goal is to develop an understanding of the “personality” of each of your foundation prospects and, in particular, what each foundation wants to achieve in the world.

So, where do you start?

Foundation Websites

Many foundations, large and small, have websites where they post anything from a general description of their purpose and interest to detailed descriptions of application procedures, program priorities and past grants. Some foundations make their most recent annual report available online, as well as news updates, program updates, links to grantee websites and even strategic planning documents.

Annual Reports

You can call or send an e-mail to a foundation to request its latest annual report and grant guidelines, if available.

Tax Returns

Every private foundation is required to submit an annual tax form, called a 990-PF, to the IRS, providing information on its assets, expenditures, and grants. This is a public document and should be a regular part of your foundation research. You can access 990’s online through the following sources:

  • Foundation Center –Under the Foundation Finder section, click on Form 990-PF. You can also call up tax forms filed by all non-profits (other than private foundations) by clicking on the Form 990 search.
  • Guidestar – Access to Guidestar’s 990’s is free, although the site encourages you to buy related products. Simply register, then type the name of your foundation prospect in the “non-profit search” box. Click on the icon for the Form 990 and it will appear.

Foundation Center Website

The Foundation Center’s website offers a “Foundation Finder” that allows you to type in a foundation’s name and access basic information about its funding priorities and grant review practices.


Foundations are often referenced in news articles or on lists of donors to other organizations. A basic Google news search by foundation name (or by the name of the primary donor) often turns up interesting and useful information.

Screening Lists

Ask your board members, key staff, and other volunteers who help your station with fundraising to screen lists of foundation board members from time to time. Especially in the case of local or regional foundations, you may discover contacts or information that could be helpful to you as you prepare an approach.

Local Non-Profit Councils

Sometimes, local or regional non-profit service centers (e.g., Councils of Nonprofits or Councils on Foundations) will sponsor foundation information sessions. It’s worth paying attention to these, because they can be a good way of gathering useful information on several foundations in your area.

When you research foundations, you are trying to do two things:

  1. Get an overall sense of what the foundation is interested in and how it actually invests its resources.
  2. Obtain several pieces of specific information that will enable you to submit a persuasive proposal. This information includes: Key contact name, preferred method of initial contact, previous grant examples, giving priorities, assets, deadlines, etc.

As you uncover this information, you will need a way to track it. You might decide simply to create a file for each foundation. Or you might find it useful to complete a standard foundation profile as you conduct your research.