Which Foundations are your Best Foundation Funding Prospects? Part 1

Defining what makes a best foundation prospect is easy to agree on – it is that foundation that is most likely to fund your organization, in the amount you need, when you need it. So much for the easy part; the tricky part is analyzing the over 120,000 US foundations and their stated and actual funding criteria to determine which of them are most likely to fund you.

In this week’s blog post, we’ll review the key factors that must be considered when evaluating a prospective funder, in order to maximize your chances of getting funded.

In analyzing foundation prospects, our experience shows that a review of foundation funding history is everything. Although many foundations publish detailed funding guidelines, actual funding history gives the truest picture of a foundation’s giving interests and patterns. Based on our analysis of fifteen years of granting and an analysis of almost ten million grants made by US foundations, we have determined that most foundations can be quite predictable in their granting behavior.

Multiple factors need to be considered when reviewing prospective foundation funders, and foundation research products like FoundationSearch and Foundation Center’s Foundation Directory Online provide many of the tools required to identify funders that meet a diverse range of funding criteria with comparative ease.

The funding factors that are the most determinate are:

Location of Recipient or Project. Geography – yours and theirs – is important. Our research has shown that funders can be quite geographically specific in their mandate (think “community foundations”), and will often reject otherwise very good proposals based on geography alone.

Giving Category. Arts, health, education, the environment, social services, sports and recreation, international causes – almost all funders are specific in terms of which non-profit categories they wish to fund. A few questions to ask yourself when evaluating a funder’s granting history: How diverse is the foundation’s funding pattern? Do they give to a wide range of giving categories, or are they very specific in what they choose to fund? If they do give to a wide range of interests, then perhaps they may be open to funding something new?

Grant Size. Grant size can be overlooked, but it’s important to note that if you are asking for too much—or even too little—the funder may be less likely to fund your project over a competing project that has an ask amount more in line with the funder’s giving preferences. Not only should you look at the dollar amount given per grant in your category, but also the total number of grants given at that dollar amount. There is no sense in asking for a $500,000 grant from a funder if they have not previously given a grant of this size. Similarly, foundations frequently set “floors” on the smallest grant size given as they find that it is difficult to cost-effectively oversee the progress made by recipients.

New versus Old Recipients Giving. Determining the degree to which a foundation is receptive to funding new opportunities is another key factor to evaluate. Funders may differentiate between recipients that have and have not been funded previously by the foundation. Some funders are very open to new opportunities, and a close examination of their past granting history may often reveal these preferences. To complicate matters, foundations may decide to change funding emphasis – or de-emphasis – by non-profit category or geography, so any analysis needs to be sensitive to these dimensions.

Giving Trends. Reviewing a funder’s funding history should also include reviewing the overall, general trends in giving. For instance, is their funding to the arts increasing over time, or decreasing within your category? It may be trickier getting grants from a funder that has given dozens of arts grants five years ago, but only one arts grant in the past year. The odds of getting grants from a funder that is increasing granting to a category is better than from a funder that is decreasing granting to that category.

Giving Interests. “Giving interests” are frequently a more specific level of funding interest within a category. For instance, “performing arts” is a specific funding interest within the Arts category, and “ballet” would be an even more specific interest within performing arts. Although it is tempting to qualify foundations to the most specific interest level, this poses two concerns – first, that you would be eliminating potential funders with a broad range of interest in the category but have not yet funded (in our example) “ballet.” Secondly, if the foundation has funded “ballet,” they may not be looking to make additional donations in this area. The general success principle would be to “cast a wider net” than you think you need.

Types of Support. Knowing what types support the foundation is willing to fund is also important. While some funders will not specify where or how the grant dollars should be spent, other funders will explicitly provide only program support, or may choose not to fund capital campaigns.

Note also that when reviewing each of these factors, the frequency of granting is critical. You may find a funder that matches on all vital counts—but if that funder has only ever given one grant that matched, how likely would that funder be to fund you next, compared to a funder that has given dozens of similar grants?

So all well and good. These are the things you need to look for in a potential funder’s giving history, in order to determine whether they’ll be a good match or not. But, how do you create a framework for generating a ranked list of prospects for your project, in a timely, efficient way? How can you find all the best potential funders, not just a single perfect funder?

We’ll discuss some of the options available in the marketplace in the next blog post.

(Please feel free to leave a comment, or link/re-post as you like. I look forward to your comments and feedback!)

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