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Grants prospecting strategy 101 

A woman looking down at a laptop with a search box in the background.

Whether for expanding programs, launching new initiatives, or sustaining current projects, securing institutional funding is crucial to your organization’s ability to deliver on your mission. Institutional funders are typically organizations with large budgets and long grant cycles, such as government agencies, corporations, and foundations. Here, I’ll share some of the funder prospecting strategies that have helped me as I’ve learned to navigate this landscape.  

Assess your readiness to apply for grants 

You’ll need to assess your capacity before you start the grantseeking process and funder prospecting efforts. To receive a grant, you’re typically required to submit a proposal, progress reports, and a final narrative and financial report. Depending on the funder or type of grant, you may have to conduct program evaluations and/or more complex financial reporting. If you’ve gotten this far and realized you might need to learn more about grantseeking, here are some free trainings:  

Target your research 

Most funders expect you to have done your research about them before asking for meetings or submitting applications. Here’s how I research prospective funders before approaching them. 

Peer organization donor lists: Nonprofits will often acknowledge their donors on their websites or program brochures. Find out which grantmakers champion causes similar to yours, then focus your research on those prospective funders. 

Creative Googling: Think outside the box when researching. Look up and monitor your current funders, your peers’ funders, or the ones you overheard being talked about. Read up on them, learn about their leadership, and explore connections on LinkedIn. Google conference speakers lists to learn about the organizations they work for. Creative Googling can uncover prospects you hadn’t considered and connections you can leverage. 

Funders’ websites: Once you know which funders you need to research, this should be your first stop. Ideally, a funder’s website will provide most of the information you need, like geographical priorities, grantmaking criteria, deadlines, etc. However, many foundations do not have a website. This is where Foundation Directory can help. 

Foundation Directory: You can access much of the information you need for funder prospecting with a single search on Candid’s Foundation Directory. This includes grants data, peer organizations’ donors, news articles, and information about funder organizations’ officers. The data is contributed directly by funders, sourced from their 990 tax form filings, or pulled from Candid’s Philanthropy News Digest or its news feed. Nonprofits with revenues under $1 million can access Foundation Directory Essential for free through our Go for Gold offer. Additionally, anyone can access it freely by visiting one of nearly 1,400 Candid community partner locations

Narrow your focus: Quality over quantity 

Now you have a long list of potential organizations to start your funder prospecting. But not all of them will be a good fit for your organization. You can narrow down your prospects by applying what I like to call the “LM9+1” principle:  

Location: Is the funder’s geographical priority where you offer your programs and services, where you’re located, or somewhere else?  

Mission: Gauge how closely aligned you are to their priorities and be ready to make a compelling case for your work’s relevance to their giving. Of course, this alone won’t be sufficient; to be successful, you’ll also need to meet the funders’ other criteria. 

990: Check funders’ 990 filings (or the grants list in Foundation Directory) from the last couple of years to understand giving patterns. What is their most common grant size? Do they fund the same causes every year, or do they not repeat grantees? Do their grantees match their mission, or is there some discretionary funding not mentioned on their website? This is funding granted at the discretion of a foundation’s trustees or officers, which does not necessarily have to match the mission. 

+1: Funders get a +1 if their grant applications won’t take you countless hours to complete. Requiring you to craft long written responses or gather new data and documents can affect return on investment, especially for small organizations. 

Leverage: Allies in high places

Often, making human connections makes fundraising much easier. For example, some funders do not accept unsolicited applications, but meeting a program officer and sharing your organization’s work could lead to that invitation you need to submit a proposal. Leverage the relationships you already have. 

Make connections through peer networks: Check with your board members, volunteers, and colleagues—every connection can lead to funding. Your peers can introduce you to program officers from a prospective grantmaker or suggest new prospects or opportunities you hadn’t considered. 

Ask questions: Seek guidance, ask clarifying questions, and request informational meetings with prospective funders and successful peers. The more you ask for help, the more likely you are to receive not just advice but funding. This is because conversations allow for nuances of your work that might be of interest to funders to surface organically.  

Success in institutional fundraising isn’t just about the funds; it’s about the relationships you foster and your strategy. You should define your goals, focus on what you have capacity for, equip yourself with research and connections, and put your funder prospecting strategy into action.  


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  • Mia-Michelle says:

    May 3, 2024 1:28 pm

    Great Article!

    The information, the links, the writing style... Brava!

    Thank you.

  • emorut says:

    May 2, 2024 8:22 am

    Am running an organization , non-profit giving people living with disabilities vocational skills . I have been going through candid web site and I have picked a lot from it in relation to funding I would like to et more information For instance site that can give us tools

  • Garnetta McNair says:

    April 25, 2024 1:16 pm

    Excellent, well-written and precise article. It is most helpful. Thank you.