Five Things to Look for in a Foundation's 990 ...
Prospect research is the absolute key when you're investigating potential sources of foundation funding and there is no finer tool for truly observing the workings of a private foundation -- and whether or not their mission provides a match with yours than with a thorough investigation of a foundation's federal 990-PF form (downloadable at a number of sites for free, including Guidestar). Download the past three years of the foundation's 990s to get a true picture ...
What, exactly, should you be looking for?
Assets: Note, of course, the total fair market value of all assets recorded on line 16 for the last year reported. Now take a look back - has the XYZ foundation's assets declined or grown over the past few years? Are they a new operating foundation with considerable assets (that can be a sign that they have yet to hone a finely tuned methodology of awarding grants) - and you'll want to approach them towards the end of the year (October through early December) when they may be rushing grant monies out the door.
Part VIII - Information about officers, directors, trustees, foundation managers, highly paid employees and contractors: You will certainly want to note the names of the trustees. Could members of your board possibly know any of the trustees of XYZ Foundation? Does the XYZ Foundation have staff members or is it entirely family-run?
Part IX-A - Summary of Direct Charitable Activities: Here's where you find out the exact dollar amount given in grants.
Part XV: This section will tell you how grant applications should be prepared, if there are any deadlines, etc. along with a listing of grantees. Although it's still a good idea to phone and get grant application guidelines directly from the foundation in question, this section will get you started (and don't write a foundation off if they specifically note that they only grant to pre-selected organizations - I've had success with smaller grants of $250-500 with these foundations when there was an otherwise good match in giving!) Are there organizations similar to yours on that listing of grants given in 2003? What is the dollar range in their grantmaking and where would your organization fall?
Income from investments: Why would this be of interest to a potential grant-seeker? Taking a look at the XYZ Foundation's investments can give you a generalized idea of their overall philosophy. Are their investments centered in "grandfather" stocks? Their philosophy may be rather traditional and conservative. Do they invest in eBay and Amazon? Perhaps they're more open to creative approaches to problem solving and would welcome a more inventive grant application.
Do a little detective work to really "get to know" the foundation you're seeking funding from and increase your chances of successful funding!