Evaluation of Grant Research Services
Over the past 7 years I have helped dozens of organizations to identify and research potential funding sources. Below are some key takeaways to help streamline the process – whether you choose to complete this work on your own or with the help of any outside professional – including an objective evaluation of two commonly used research services.
A theme I emphasize to all potential clients who approach me looking for help finding grant opportunities is to be regimented and precise. There are hundreds of thousands of foundation and government funding sources, but 99.9% are likely not a good fit with any one specific organization; this is because every funder has distinct funding directives based on geography, fields of interest, founding mission, population served, the calendar year, type of support (i.e. capital vs. program vs. salaries vs. capacity building, etc.) and other factors. In all cases I recommend starting in the same place, organizational assessment, before proceeding.
Whether the funding-search is conducted by an ‘insider,’ or an outside consultant, it is important to have a clear understanding of the organization’s strengths, programmatic priorities, and to have realistic expectations. Because of the time and challenge involved in finding funding sources with good alignment, you need to know what you are trying align with. Therefore, the first step should include a discussion about the organization’s menu of services (if multiple), past accomplishments, programmatic need and demographic need. These insights will help to determine which program or programs are best-positioned for funding and for which programs the organization (and its constituents) have the greatest funding need. Funders want to fund initiatives that have a high likelihood of success; and a prime predictor of future results is past success. Those programs which have the well-documented successes – i.e. have proven effective in meeting the program’s goal(s) (whether, for example, that be helping people acquire a skill, education, job, housing, improved health or quality of life, or some other measurable outcome). An organization must also balance the need for resources against those which are the most ‘fundable.’ Your most successful program may also be adequately funded. So, either choose a new program, or identify an unmet need within that program – this could include expanding the type or volume of services).
Once the program(s) have been identified, establish criteria for your funding search. These are the criteria that will be used to narrow down your list of potential funders, and typically include: geographic focus, target demographic, type of support needed (i.e. salaries, equipment, etc.), program genre (drill down from general to specific – i.e. healthcare -> community health -> asthma prevention). Once you have a sense of what you are looking for, then it is time to choose your platform.
The best way to identify good funding sources is often through personal/professional relationships. Contact program officers at funders that have previously supported your organization, ask other executives in your industry from where they get their grants/contracts, query your board and other key constituents about connections at family foundations, local community foundations, etc. Simultaneously, consider using a grant research service such as Foundation Center Online, Instrumentl or Grantwatch. As I have only used the first two, I can provide some pointers/assessment of each.
Foundation Center Online – This service is operated by a nonprofit and is ubiquitous in the funding/non-profit community. They have several tiers of services that range from $49-$199/month; service can be cancelled at any time and discounts are offered for pre-payment of multiple months. I have used FConline extensively for 7 years. In that time they have made numerous improvements. The most useful features include: ability to view a funder’s 990 tax return for first-hand insight into funding history, to export certain data fields for further analysis/organization, to tag funders for later review and to save searches. Limitations: full access to their database, and to some of the most useful features such viewing a summary of funded-grants and the ability to search grants (vs. just the grantors), is limited/now available. In addition, only certain fields can be exported, and the search mechanism is ambiguous. Overall, the service is good, but pricey.
Instrumentl – This is a new player in the market started by innovators intent on disrupting this small market and committed to helping organizations more efficiently identify and raise funds. The founders/managers are very accessible and responsive to feedback. The query process highly-contrasts that of FConline in that they ask the user several key questions about program, demographic, geography and a few others, and then use an algorithm to create a list of potential funders, which can then be easily viewed and organized. The mechanics of this system is quite efficient and navigable, with an interface that easily allows quickly scrolling through and assessing results. Compared to FConline, the results are more targeted and require much less time to evaluate; though I am not 100% convinced that the algorithm grabs all potential sources since the user is not in direct control of the parameters and there is not an ability to search by keyword (FConline does have this feature but it is almost useless because it does not allow for the use of operators [i.e. “and” “or”]). This service is $75/month. Overall, I rate this service as excellent, especially given its reasonable price which doesn’t ‘nickel and dime’ its customers for every little feature. And, this service does a better job searching government sources.
Once you have your data set – foundation list (and/or government funders) – the next step is to evaluate the prospects. Ideally you have 50-100 prospects to start from, since 80%, upon closer examination, will not be a good fit. For me, this evaluation process involves reading about the mission and funding guidelines/restrictions, viewing funding history (but only for those which seem promising), quickly review the website (if available), and entering key data and qualitative review into a database, which I organize upon completion for my client. What types of things should you look for during this evaluation process?
- History of funding organizations like yours
- Shared interests (programmatic/demographic)
- Do they accept “unsolicited” applications
- Average grant size
Once your analysis is complete, create a grants calendar and a ranked list which will serve as your blueprint as you move forward. And as the final step before you apply – if possible reachout to a program officer/staff person at the foundation/agency and make a connection or at-minimum confirm key details about the application process (requirements, deadline, etc.). This will help to reduce the risk of wasting your time and/or money applying for opportunities you have not shot at winning.
This article is not exhaustive as a guide – but it is thorough enough to help inform your next move. Contact Aaron if you need help researching or applying for foundation and/or government grants.