Grant Writing 101: Research

Part 1 of a 2-part blog series on grant writing tips and resources for small nonprofits

“How many of you dreamed of being a grant writer when you grew up?”

In a room full of 57 people at our recent Grant Writing 101 seminar, no hands went up. 

“How many of you have ‘grant writing’ specifically mentioned in your job description?”

10-15 hands went up.

“How many of you learned after the fact that ‘other duties as assigned’ means ‘grant writing’?”

Nearly every hand in the room flew up.

In Addison County, most nonprofits do not have staff dedicated to researching, writing, or managing grants.  In most cases grants become part of a long list of other duties our nonprofit staff (and volunteers!) are asked to do.  Grant Writing 101 was a free seminar presented by our Executive Director, Helena Van Voorst, on December 17th, 2019. It is the second in a series of professional development opportunities for nonprofit professionals and volunteers being planned by United Way of Addison County in close partnership with the Addison County Chamber of Commerce and Dinners with Love.

Below is PART 1 of the top grant writing tips and resources shared at Grant Writing 101.  This part of the presentation focused heavily on the research phase of grant writing:  where to find grants, how to know when you've found the right opportunity for your organization, and how to learn about funders that have a low profile online.  In PART 2 (coming after the New Year!) we’ll review how to write a winning proposal, how prepare a budget funders will understand, and how to think like a reviewer!

(We should note that this blog presumes that your program is not duplicating services and that you've identified a documented need for the program/organization for which you are seeking grant funds.  If you don't have evidence to show the need for your program, you're not ready to write a grant yet!)

#1:  It may seem obvious, but know what you’re looking for before you start looking!

Have you ever had this phone call?  “Hey, I was just listening to NPR and I heard about the So-and-So Family Foundation and they love kids and families and your organization loves kids and families and they must have money because they’re advertising on NPR and you should ask them for money!”

It may be a good lead. It may also be a huge distraction and a waste of your precious time.  Before you begin looking for grants, ask yourself the following questions so you know which opportunities are worth chasing:

  • What problem are we trying to solve?
  • Who are we helping? (Demographics)
  • Where do those people live? (Geography)
  • What outcomes will we achieve?  (This is the change in the problem you’re trying to solve)
  • How much does it cost to run this program for one year?
  • How much money would you like to cover with grant funding?
  • What specific things are you hoping to accomplish with grant funding?
  • Who are your partners?

#2:  There are a lot of FREE places to search for grants!

You don’t have to pay to search for grant opportunities!  Thanks to the Vermont Community Foundation, the Bay & Paul Foundations, and the A.D. Henderson Foundation you can search the Vermont Directory of Foundations Online any time you’d like for free!  If for some reason you can’t find what you’re looking for there, you can search the entire Foundation Center’s database at the Brooks Memorial Libraryin Brattleboro (again, for free!).

For Federal grant opportunities, is the go-to!  First time Federal grant writers may find their Learning Center especially helpful (especially the glossary!).

Other free resources include your Board of Directors (do they know anyone with a private foundation?  Can they introduce you?), Google (really, even for grants!), and (yes, we're about to say it) other like-organizations' annual reports.

If you’re still worried you’re going to miss a great opportunity, you may want to check out GrantWatch.  It’s not free, but annual subscriptions go on sale for $99 several times a year on TechSoup.

#3: Think you found a good grant opportunity?  The researching has just begun.

Before you apply for a grant, invest some time in getting to know the funder.  Knowing your audience is a key step in writing a winning proposal! If the grant maker has a website, spend lots of time there reading about their priorities and reviewing what other organizations/programs they’ve funded.  

If you can’t find much information’s time to dive into their Form 990!  To quote the IRS themselves, "Form 990 is an annual information return required to be filed with the IRS by most organizations exempt from income tax under section 501(a), and certain political organizations and nonexempt charitable trusts." 

You can look up any nonprofit’s Form 990 on  Specific things to look for on the 990:

  • The most current contact information:  Is the foundation’s website out of date?  Nobody answering the disconnected landline you have on file?  Page 1 of the 990 has the most current contact information!
  • Information about how to submit a proposal:  This is available in section XV.  You may find that the box that says “this foundation only gives to preselected charitable organizations” is checked.  Don’t lose hope yet. (We’ll come back to this.) If that box isn’t checked, there will be additional information about how funds can be requested.
  • Where they’re making grants:  A complete list of their grants and contributions can also be found in Part XV (many times you’re directed to an attachment that has all the details and you’ll have to keep scrolling).  This will give you a sense both of how much you might be able to ask for AND where their giving priorities are.
  • Who sits on the foundation’s Board of Trustees:  Part VIII includes a list of officers, directors, trustees, most highly compensated staff and other people you should know (or at least know of).  Ask your own board (and staff!) if they know anyone on this list and, if they do, ask if they’d be willing to make an introduction! 
  • Where their funds are invested:  In some cases, an organization’s values and/or mission may be in conflict with where a foundation is invested and they may choose not to seek funding based on that difference in values.  This information is often found in Attachment A of the Form 990.

#4:  You found the one!  It’s time to write!

Not quite yet.  Before you start writing, grab a highlighter and a cup of coffee!  Make note of the following details:

  • Submission deadlines (do you have enough time to submit a solid proposal?)
  • Submission requirements (like formatting, page limit, etc)
  • Reporting requirements (can you - and are you willing to - do what they'll ask of you if you're awarded a grant?)
  • What you’ll need to gather from other people before you submit (signatures, letters of support, data, etc.).  Move asking for those things to the top of your to do list
  • Scoring criteria (if it’s available!) - this will tell you how your request will be scored and weighted by the foundation and is very important to keep in mind as you’re writing your proposal

And now it’s time to write that winning proposal!  (Part 2 will be on the blog after the New Year!)

If you have questions about the research phase of grant writing, email Helena Van Voorst!