Prospect Research · Prospecting · Level · I
Foundation Prospecting 101 and Free Foundation Prospecting Resources: Part 1
By Kristin Blankenheim | October 13, 2022
As part of my work at Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), I recently had the great opportunity to present to a few community environmental justice organizations who had asked for EDF’s assistance in identifying new foundation prospects. Not only was the project an incredibly meaningful way to work directly on EDF’s mission, but I also enjoyed taking a deep dive into the world of free foundation prospecting tools, a question I get from friends and former colleagues about once a year. Below is the result of that work and I would love to hear from you about what I missed.
I’ve written this article with some basic information so it can be used by people with a wide range of comfort levels related to foundation prospecting. The resources I mention are free at the time of this writing. If you are more experienced and only looking for a list of free resources to make sure you’re not missing anything, I have included a summary list at the end.
There are many different types of foundations, and a number of organizations have the word in their title, though they are not what we traditionally think of as a foundation. Foundation is not a legal term, and when I queried the internet for a definition, the top results were numerous sources saying there are five, three or eight types of foundations.
What I will write about below is how to find private, non-operating foundations. Private generally means they get their money from one or a couple sources rather than the general public, and include everything from small family foundations to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Non-operating means that instead of funding their own programs, they make grants to charitable organizations. The tips outlined in this article will work for family, corporate, community and any other grantmaking foundations.
What Makes a Good Foundation Prospect?
A good foundation prospect:
- Makes grants in amounts that are helpful for your project (not too big or too small);
- Has a stated interest in work like yours or makes grants to similar organizations or projects;
- Makes grants in your geographic location; and
- Accepts applications or you have someone at the foundation to advocate for you.
My Process for Foundation Prospecting
Before looking for brand new funders, check your own database for prospects who haven’t given for a little while or have given to a different project but might also fit this new opportunity. It’s easier to get funding from a foundation that has already supported your organization than to build new relationships.
The first step in my external (outside the database) foundation prospecting begins by gathering a list of any prospects that might qualify. This includes reviewing RFPs (requests for proposals), keyword searching, looking at foundations similar to your current funders and looking at foundations that give to organizations like yours.
After putting together a big list, I qualify and disqualify the prospects on an individual basis by reviewing them for numerous qualities — including whether their giving is in amounts that are helpful to my organization, they make gifts in my geographic area, their program interests align with that of my project, they accept applications and whether they have other giving limitations that might disqualify my organization’s project. If a prospect ticks all the boxes except accepting applications, I will set them aside and later research whether I can find a person in common who might introduce us.
As with prospecting for individuals, there’s a lot of gray area in foundation prospecting, especially for things like giving in your geographic area. Maybe a foundation has never given in your area, but your project is a perfect fit for their stated interests and they don’t explicitly say that they are restricted by location. Your fundraiser’s preferences (“give me a list of any foundation that might qualify” versus “I only want the most qualified and highly recommended prospects”) will determine whether to include foundations that aren’t exactly the right fit.
Creating a List of Potential Foundation Prospects
One great way to find funding opportunities for foundations is to sign up for newsletters from foundations you believe might be interested in your work. The funders themselves are always the best source of information. Below are additional ways of identifying funding opportunities, either through RFPs or by looking at a funder’s past gifts to determine where they are likely to give in the future.
Requests for Proposals (RFPs)
RFPs are when a funder announces they have an idea for a project and ask for qualified organizations to apply. RFPs are often announced on a funder’s website, but that can be hard to check consistently. Philanthropy News Digest is a great resource for foundation news and RFPs, and you can sign up for an e-newsletter.
Prospecting Based on Past Giving
RFPs can be hard to come by and only cover very narrow funding opportunities. It is likely that the majority of what you’ll be doing is identifying potential funders based on their past giving. For this work, the best free tool is Foundation Directory Online (FDO). Using FDO in your home or office requires a subscription, but it is free to use at numerous libraries across the county through the Funding Information Network (use the link to find your nearest location).
The primary search tool in FDO allows for searching by keyword, location, population served, type of funding sought, grant amounts and many other categories. There are numerous ways to filter your query, and FDO allows you to export results to a spreadsheet for later qualification. Keep in mind that FDO is not perfect and does occasionally have errors in their data.
If your time is limited, go to the library to use FDO for keyword searching and then qualifying and disqualifying later using other resources. The advantage of going to the library in person is that the librarians are trained on the tool and can help you with your queries. FDO has a series of videos that offer tips and tricks for prospecting which I highly recommend watching before starting.
Prospecting Based on Similar Giving
You can also use FDO’s primary search page to find which foundations fund organizations similar to yours by searching a peer organization and returning a list of their funders.
They also have a new tool called Pathways that allows for a similar search but in a visual interface. If you put your own organization’s name into Pathways it will show you your own funders, who else they fund and who funds those organizations. Presumably those funders might be interested in your organization, but use your best judgement.
Foundations Like Your Current Funders
Once you click into an individual foundation’s record in FDO, there is often a section toward the bottom called “Other Funders to Consider,” which I recommend using on your current foundation donors. Using a foundation’s patterns of giving, FDO recommends similar foundations. It can be hit or miss and works best for small or medium foundations.
Keyword Searching With a Search Engine
If you can’t make it to a library to use FDO, your next best bet is Google (or your preferred search engine) for searching terms related to your work. Google uses Boolean-like searching. Try using queries like: “your issue” AND foundation; “your issue” AND (gift or grant); “your issue” AND foundation AND Texas. Here is a quick guide on which search operators Google uses.
Google’s site search capability is a great way to search a specific website. For example, if you know that a prospect has made a gift to a specific organization, you can use site search to see if the foundation’s name and gift amount appear anywhere in their news, annual reports or donor honor rolls. If you love a free online class, I recommend the Power Searching with Google online course, which will help you take advantage of all the powerful querying tools Google has to offer.
Stay tuned for Part 2 on qualifying and disqualifying, finding contact information, and other tips and tricks.
Project Manager, Environmental Defense Fund
Kristin Blankenheim is a project manager on Environmental Defense Fund’s prospect research team. With nearly 15 years of experience in fundraising and prospect development, she has worked at higher education, environmental, and cultural institutions. She received a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, a master’s degree in nonprofit management from DePaul University, and attended Northwestern University’s predictive analytics program.