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Betsy A. Northrup

About Betsy

The Anatomy of Foundation Research

Almost every how-to grant book tells grant seekers to know the foundation before submitting a proposal. But what does that really mean, and how do we use the tools at our fingertips to research a foundation? As a creature of habit, I follow these four steps when researching a foundation of interest.

Step 1: Read the Foundation Center’s profile on the targeted foundation

I am fortunate to work at an institution that holds a professional subscription to The Foundation Directory On-line ( This affords me instant access to more than 100,000 grantmaker profiles, a comprehensive and searchable 990s database, and 2.4 million grant records. However, if your organization doesn’t subscribe, you can still access the information through one of The Foundation Center’s (FC) more than 450 Cooperating Collections, free funding information centers in libraries, community foundations and other non-profit resource centers. To see if there is a Cooperating Collection close to you, visit If you aren’t close to a Cooperating Collection, you can access basic information, including 990s, on thousands of foundations through The Foundation Finder at

The Foundation Center’s profiles offer key information including background, limitations, purpose and activities, fields of interest, geographic focus, types of support, application information, financial data, and more. Using the FC’s various tools (e.g. chart grants, map grants, grant search), I try to answer three primary questions:

  • Does the foundation’s purpose align with my organization’s purpose?
  • Does the foundation give grants for projects similar to my own?
  • Does the foundation demonstrate a willingness to fund organizations in my geographic region?

According to my favorite philosopher, Meatloaf, “Two out of three ain’t bad.” But I need three-out-of-three to continue my research.

Step 2:  Read the foundation’s most recent annual report

I was recently vetting a foundation for an upcoming project. According to its Foundation Center profile, it seemed to be a dream fit.  Perfect alignment! That is until they changed their strategic focus. According to the most recent annual report posted on their website, they have been working through a strategic planning process that is leading them away from their current investments. A proposal for the planned project would have been fruitless, wasting our time and theirs. Annual reports are essential reading because it is information straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. I read them not only for the latest news and data, but for shared language and snapshots of their heart.

Step 3:  Analyze the foundation’s recent (3-5 year) grant history

Past performance really is a good predictor of future performance, at least when it comes to foundation grants. There are always outliers but, by and large, you can paint a vivid portrait of a foundation by analyzing its recent grant history.  For the most comprehensive and up-to-date grant-making data, I pull the foundation’s 990s for the last 3-5 years. Fortunately, 990s are freely available in a number of places, including The Foundation Finder ( and Guidestar (

By comparing grants across time, I try to answer the following questions.

  • Does the foundation give to the same organizations each year? If so, it is highly likely that these are pre-selected organizations. For more information on accessing this type of foundation, please see Betsy Baker’s Charity Channel article (posted February 15, 2012), “Your Three-Step Plan to Approach Grant Funders That Only Give to Pre-Selected Organizations,” for specific guidance.
  • How many ‘new’ organizations receive grants each year? If the foundation gives awards to many of the same organizations year after year, that is actually good news because they are willing to invest in organizations over time creating funding stability. But do they add new organizations to their grant slate each year and at what funding level? This information is key to your proposal writing plans and helps ensure that your ‘ask’ is perfectly aligned with their giving.
  • What is the average grant amount? While this seems like a simple calculation, it’s more complex than you might initially think. For example, organizations with a close tie to the foundation’s originating donor(s) often receive much larger grants than other applicants. If you don’t know the foundation’s history and have some familiarity with the organizations it funds, you can easily misinterpret the data. In my experience, it is best to take “pet grants” out of the calculation because they skew the averages.

Step 4: Research your organization’s history with the foundation

If your organization has previously received a grant from the foundation, you should know about it. Hopefully your organization has maintained grant files over the years or has at least one individual who has long-term institutional memory. If you have a positive grant history with a foundation, it is important to reference it in your correspondence because it demonstrates organizational continuity and understanding. If your organization under performed on a grant or neglected to complete and submit grant reports, it might negatively impact your ability to receive another grant from the foundation without first repairing the relationship.


I am the first to admit that foundation research like this can be tedious and time consuming. It is tempting to cut corners and submit proposals based on partial knowledge. But I would rather take the time on the front-end to identify strong potential foundation partners than to spend time crafting a proposal that is going to miss its mark.


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1 Comment

  1. Renee M. Roberts on July 25, 2014 at 11:43 am

    Hi Betsy,
    I was wondering what other search tools you might have reviewed.
    Are you satisfied with the algorithm above? Do you think it produces the best results?
    Many thanks,

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