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 your organization -- than with a thorough investigation of a foundation's federal 990-PF form (downloadable at a number of sites for free, including Guidestar and Nozasearch).
For a clearer picture, download the past three years of the foundation's 990.
What, exactly, should you be looking for? Let’s take a walk through a typical grantmaking foundation’s 990-FP:
1. Do take a look at the foundation’s Fiscal Year. Why? Well, if they happen to be closing in on the end of their fiscal year, they may have already spent the required 5 percent payout. On the other hand, if they’re fairly new to grantmaking, the foundation may have yet to hone their grantmaking policies – and you may get lucky if they’re looking to send some last minute grant checks out the door.
2. 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 fairly new operating foundation?
3. Part I, Analysis of Revenue and Expenses summarizes other sections of the report. Pay particular attention to line 1. If major contributions have been made during the year in question a founder or trustee may have recently passed – and an increase in giving could be in the future.
4. Part VIII – Take note – here’s one of your most important resources. 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? Are the trustees paid?
5. Part IX-A - Summary of Direct Charitable Activities: Here's where you find out the exact dollar amount given in grants. If the foundation you’re researching tends to give many grants in the $2,500 to $10,000 range (as opposed to a few grants in the $25,000-$100,000 range) and you are a first time applicant, you’ll want to frame your first ask accordingly.
6. 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 (or their website), 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.
Have your basic funding research form ready and do a little detective work to really "get to know" the foundation you're seeking funding from. You’ll dramatically increase your chances of successful funding!