Prospect Research — Where to start!
Whether you’re starting at a new agency as a grant writer or been with the same organization for years, finding new prospects and keeping track of them can be overwhelming. Obviously the type of prospect research you do depends on the type of agency you work at and the type of programs that need funding. However, the same general principles can be applied to no matter where you work.
Organize your prospects!
Do you have paper files, sticky notes and photocopied articles on potential funders in all corners of your office? Or maybe you have a giant agency wide database that can be mind-boggling to look up information if you’re not a database guru. Before you can start researching new prospects, it’s important to have some kind of system in place for prospect management.
In my experience, a simple excel spreadsheet gets the job done. It provides “at a glance” information on prospects when I need to find funding for a particular program or am updating a calendar of deadlines. Funders are sorted alphabetically with contact information in the first column.
Whatever your method, it’s a good idea to have some of the components listed below for management and research purposes. All of these are organized into columns on my spreadsheet.
- Current contact information - If this is a funder that has supported your agency, who did you work with? Who are the program officers and the executive director? How do you reach them? What’s their website address?
- Program match - If your agency has numerous programs, which seem like potential matches for each listed funder?
- Deadlines – This is self-explanatory – if you miss the deadline, sorry! If there’s no deadline make a note. It’s a good idea to include the estimated response time as well (e.g. board meets every quarter, every six months, December, etc.).
- Board of directors/trustees - This is a column I generally hide but I like to have it there in case a foundation board member is also a board member of my agency. It can also be handy for agency board officers to look at and compare to see if they know anyone.
- Geographic area - Are they a national funder, statewide, local or do they only fund a specific county? The local foundations are generally the better matches.
- History - Have they funded your agency before? Are they a consistent funder or did they give you a gift 10 years ago? I like to keep it simple with a summary such as: 5/10: food programs $5K; 1/09: Operating declined. You may see patterns emerge (e.g. they like to fund every other year or want to stick with one particular program).
- Funding Interests/Gift Types -Do they fund human services, arts and culture, environment or all of the above? Are they willing to fund operating expenses or do they only like new programs? Who are some of their recent grantees?
- Gift range - Generally, what is their funding range and a frequent gift amount?
- Comments/Application info - This is where I store miscellaneous information such as notes from conversations with a program officer or from a tour date. I don’t generally include a lot of information regarding the application process except for references to online formats, Letters of Interest, or other preferred communication methods. But remember, it’s always a good idea to check the website of the funder, look at their 990, and/or call them to make sure you have the current application guidelines before applying.
- Color coded - In the contact column, I like to highlight the new funders with yellow. Funders with no color are those that have been approached but with whom the agency has had no success. Those highlighted in blue are the funders that have supported the agency in the past. Finally, if there’s a prospect identified that turned out to have no interest in funding the agency or who changed their guidelines making us ineligible, I highlight their column in red. Note that I don’t delete it from the spreadsheet because I wouldn’t want to waste my time looking up the information again. Besides, there is always a small glimmer of hope that things could change in the future.
With a system in place, it’s a good idea to allocate some time each day, week, or month (depending on your schedule) for prospect research. Even if you have a well developed database it never hurts to see what else is out there. It’s important to maintain your relationships with current funders and to continue applying to them first. An agency can never have too many friends.
Fee-based prospect research
So where do you go when you want to add to your spreadsheet? There are several good fee-based research services. Here are some resources for prospect research I find the most helpful.
Foundation Directory Online (http://fconline.foundationcenter.org) - Most grant professionals are familiar with the foundation directory’s comprehensive services. It’s costly to be a monthly subscriber so if it’s not in the budget, check to see if your local library offers it. It’s often a great way to start if you’re new to an organization (or a certain field). The advantage of this database is it allows you to narrow down thousands of foundations and corporate prospects by fields such as geography, interests, and types of support. However, you may miss out on smaller, local funders.
GrantStation (http://grantstation.com/members/mx_index.asp) - Similar to Foundation Directory online, GrantStation also lets you search by geographic scope, areas of interest and type of support. You can also look up federal grants. The database is not as extensive as Foundation directory online but it is a lot more affordable.
Grantspy (http://grantspy.com) - This is a great option for those on a budget. Their rates are very reasonable and they send you a daily email on new prospects (federal, private and corporate) narrowed down by your specific fields of interest and geographic location. You can also look up funders directly on their website. However, that process can be overwhelming if you don’t have hours to spare. The daily emails are a great resource for discovering new funders without having to do too much legwork.
Additionally, there are several free options available to assist you in your service to develop a prospect list.
- Listservs by your field - Whether you work at a hospital, a university or a museum, chances are there are listservs you can subscribe to that will keep you up-to-date about new funding announcements.
- News announcements - Along those lines, you can sign up for new RFP’s from various federal funders and RFP alerts and prospects from the Philanthropy News Digest (http://foundationcenter.org/pnd/profile/register.jhtml).
- Fundsnet - There are numerous categories with foundations and corporate resources on this site (http://www.fundsnetservices.com).
- Guidestar - Although technically not a place to find new prospects, this is the standard website to narrow down or get up-to-date information on any identified prospects’ gift histories, guidelines, and financials by researching their IRS 990’s (http://www2.guidestar.org).
- Newspapers/business journals - Even if you don’t have a paid subscription, most newspapers and many periodicals offer free Internet access. Many business sections (or journals) will have a section that talks about recent grants awarded to nonprofits by businesses and foundations. There may also be articles about corporate philanthropy such as a business’ interest in providing help for a cause that might just happen to be the one you work for.
- Websites of corporate foundations or businesses - If you work for an animal welfare agency, a logical place to see if there is a grant program is a major pet food brand or store. The same logic can be applied to many different areas (and are often a good place to check for in-kind donations as well).
- Other foundations - If you have a good relationship with a funder it never hurts to ask for their suggestions on other foundations to approach.
- “Competitors” (or partners) - Annual reports, websites and newsletters can tell you where others who do similar work are getting their support. If you have partners in the same field, sharing these resources in a more overt way or even collaborating on a proposal will be beneficial to everyone!
Good luck with your search. I’m sure that the time you put into it will pay many dividends in the future!
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