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Michael Wells

About Michael

Should You Do Competitive Funder Research? Absolutely!

In business, each company needs to know what its competitors are doing and therefore conducts “competitive research” when developing a business plan and on an ongoing basis. You can do the same thing when searching for funders.

Let’s say you work for a small liberal arts college and you’ve been successful with foundations in your own state and a few others where you have trustee or alumni connections. But you have a large campaign coming up and need to broaden your approach. Thus, your board president is after your boss to bring in more funds and she’s decided that grants need to be a major part of the effort. Yikes! How are you going to sort through the more than a hundred thousand foundations in the U.S.?

Identifying Your Competition

This is where good competitive research comes in. Who is your competition for grant funds? The peer schools, other small liberal arts colleges who are similar in size, demographics, reputation, and approach. So pick ten from the list. Select those that are the most like your school and be sure to include a couple that are successful in fundraising or academic reputation.

Accessing a Comprehensive Database

Take your list and go to the Foundation Directory Online (FD Online). It’s my personal favorite database. You will want to use “plus” or higher to get access to the grants option. If you don’t have a subscription, see if your local public library or a major university library subscribes and will let you access it for free. The county library where I live has a FD Pro subscription at its main branch and you can get two hours of free computer time to access its databases. So does Portland State University where I teach. If you’re going to a library, remember to take a flash drive to save information. If you don’t know where to find a library that offers access, go to the Foundation Center’s website ( to find a location near you.

Once you’ve signed onto Foundation Directory Online, click the “search grants” tab and type in the name of your first peer school. It will give you a list of the foundation grants it has received in the last ten years. Save this list to your flash drive, either as an Excel or PDF document. Then go on to the next school and do the same thing for all ten peer colleges on your list.

Analyzing the Information

Back at your office, open the first school’s data and look at its foundation funders. You can probably eliminate ones in its state and those that gave under a certain amount (Ten thousand dollars? One hundred thousand dollars? The level is up to you.) Write down the list of large out-of-state funders that gave money to that school. Then go through the next school’s list and do the same thing until you’ve done all ten. After finishing your list, go have a cup of coffee and read the comics—you’ve earned a little brain-relief time.

Back at your desk, look through and compare the lists. Are there any foundations that have funded more than one or two of these colleges? What you’re searching for is (probably larger national) foundations that have a history of funding colleges similar to yours and especially for projects such as the campaign you have coming up. These are definitely your stronger prospects. Once you have developed this list, then you’re down to researching each one.

Researching for the Best Foundation Prospects

To research your potential funders, you may want to go back to the library and Foundation Directory Online. This time, click on “search grantmakers.” Type in the name of the first foundation on your list. What are its funding interests, geographic area, size of grants, etc.? Look at the list of their grants and maybe save this to your flash drive as well. Check its website for interests, where it funds, recent grants, etc. If it doesn’t have its own website— and some family foundations don’t—try googling its name and maybe those of its trustees.

Researching Federal Grant Opportunities

You can do the same thing with federal grants, except for this you don’t have to go to the library. In this case, let’s say you work for a substance abuse provider. You know that you’re eligible for SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) grants but are wondering if there are other agencies or opportunities that you might want to consider.

To find out, let’s just look at grants to individual grantee organizations. For this, you want to check out the government website, USASpending ( This is both more and less user friendly than Foundation Directory Online because of the extensive levels of data and choices provided, and the multiple means of presentation. In addition to listing the awarded grants by funder name, it provides lots of other information which you may or may not find useful.

Just as you did with the college and FD Online process above, pick a few peer organizations located in your city and nationally. Enter the name of your first organization and USASpending will give you a list of all of the federal grants that it has received in the last decade (when the site was established). For each grant (transaction), it will list an award ID (which leads to more detail), recipient name and address, program source number, Federal agency name, CFDA number, and a brief project description.

Just recently, I entered the name of a large multi-service agency in Portland and found that it has received 259 grants from multiple agencies totaling $33,188,000 since 2003. Note that these were just its competitive grants and didn’t include funds given as a result of Medicaid billing or Section 8 rental payments.

Do this with all of your peer organizations. Then, investigate each grant program that might apply to your organization. Check the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance (CFDA) for a program overview. Go to and see if you can find the last time the program was offered. Then search the agency website for the most recent RFP or NOFA (Notice of Funding Availability) and read it.

Find the name of the program officer (generally in the last couple of pages of the RFP). Then contact the program officer. Ask key questions that might help you decide if this program would be a good match for your organization. Does the program officer anticipate this program being offered again this year? If so when is the expected submission deadline? Does the program officer anticipate major changes in the RFP or will it be similar to last time? The answers will help you decide how to move forward with this potential funding opportunity.

In Conclusion

There are many search engines and websites that provide the type of information I’ve discussed here. Remember that these kinds of techniques can be used with any one of them. The ones that I’ve listed are just the ones that I’ve found to be the most common and widely accessible.

Happy hunting!


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1 Comment

  1. Renee M. Roberts on July 25, 2014 at 11:36 am

    Hi Michael,
    Have you used any other online search tools? I'd be most interested in your appraisal of them.

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