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Finding Grants for Your Nonprofit - Get the Basics Right

Are you interested in free funding for your nonprofit’s programs and projects? We thought so!

Grants are incredibly rewarding. They are an invaluable funding source for nonprofits of all kinds. Having a full grant pipeline increases your chances of securing funding for your programs, projects, and equipment. Done well, they ensure your nonprofit has the means to achieve its goals and pursue its mission. 

But we also know grants can be daunting and exasperating, especially if you’re just starting out. To help you out, we’ve written up this guide to help you get started with finding grants for your nonprofit.

What are grants?

Let’s start with the basics. A grant is typically defined as a financial donation usually awarded to a nonprofit organization by a foundation, corporation, or governmental agency for a distinct program or purpose. Grants can also be awarded to support a person, a project, or a program. Grants are usually given by organizations and institutions as opposed to individuals.

When giving grants, grantmakers typically focus on:

  • A specific geographic location or a specific population of beneficiaries (such as the homeless or organizations in Chicago)
  • Particular types of nonprofits (such as hospitals or schools)
  • Certain types of support (such startup funding, general operations support, or capital funding)

Grants range in size from a few hundred to millions of dollars. To apply for a grant, a nonprofit organization typically submits a written request to the government entity, foundation, corporation, or another grantmaker specifying how it will use the funds and presenting evidence to support their application.

Why are grants important?

Here are 3 main reasons why grants can become an invaluable part of your nonprofit fundraising strategy:

1. Grants help diversify your revenue stream

Diversifying your revenue stream aids you in becoming more financially sustainable. Most fundraising professionals recommend having multiple income streams to minimize risk.

Note: Grants are important but should generally be secondary to raising money from individuals. That is where you should focus your attention and resources. 

"It is difficult to put an exact formula to the ratios that small, medium and large nonprofits 'should' depend on for grant funding. My own belief, through experience and research, is that any organization should not be more than 25 percent dependent on any type of grant funding." April A. Northstrom, Pathway Associates

2. Grants help you grow and scale

Grants can provide the necessary cash needed to carry out large-scale programs and efforts that would otherwise be difficult to fund.

3. Grants contribute to your reputation.

Receiving grants, especially from more well-known grantmakers, can have a positive impact on your reputation and can increase trust amongst other funders and donors.

What are the different types of grants? 

Below are some of the main types of grants:

Program support

Program development grants provide funding for a particular program or project and are usually restricted. This means you can only use the funds for the exact purpose outlined in the grant proposal. These often fund only program costs and not the administrative costs.

General operations support

General operating support grants are less restrictive. They cover almost any expense, but are quite rare to come by.

Capital support

Capital support is most commonly given for specific capital campaigns that involve activities like building construction, property acquisition, or other similar large-scale projects.

Research grants

This type of support is typically found in academia and research-oriented nonprofits, and is often attached to a particular team member.

In-kind grants

These grants provide non-monetary support, such as equipment, supplies, or pro bono consulting and personnel.

Get very clear on the type of funding you are seeking. Perhaps it’s a program grant to cover costs of running your jungle preservation program. Maybe you need capital grants to carry out a specific project you’d like to complete like building a new school or a new animal shelter.

Pro tip: Don’t forget about more specific grants. For example, The Google for Nonprofit program is an umbrella that gives access to: Google Ad Grants, YouTube features, Google Apps Suite, and more. Salesforce offers 10 free seats for nonprofits, and they also have a volunteer program for database design that could save your nonprofit tens of thousands in cost. TechSoup is a global nonprofit focused on giving hardware, software and tech training at free or greatly discounted prices. 

How to learn about grants?

Finding the right grants, but especially writing the application, can be very challenging. If you’re looking to improve your grant writing skills, here is where you can start.

Candid

Candid is probably one of the best places to learn about finding and applying for grants from experts in the field. Here’s a course on Grant Writing 101 Series with Phoenix Public Library (virtual).

Udemy

Here’s an affordable course on Udemy titled Nonprofit Grant Writers: How To Find Foundation Funding.

Coursera

On Coursera you can find a grant proposal course created by the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, as well as many more.

MIT OpenCourseWare

MIT’s graduate level Advanced Writing Seminar covers much more than grant writing, but you'll find some excellent lessons on grants.

Nonprofitready.org

If you're working for a nonprofit, nonprofitready.org offers two free online courses: Getting Foundation Grants and Grantsmanship Essentials.

University of Wisconsin

The University of Wisconsin Milwaukee offers an Introduction to Grant Writing course for $150 covering fundraising strategies and exploring the six stages of grant writing.

What to do before starting to apply for grants

1. Make sure your organization is ready

Whichever grant you apply for, demonstrating the need for your nonprofit in the community (as well as your positive impact) will be key. You have to convince the grantmaker that your organization has the ability to carry out what it says it wants to do. Therefore, it’s important to have all the documentation in place before you get started. 

Here’s what you can do to get your organization ready:

  • Have a clear mission and vision, goals, and objectives.
  • Prepare a description of your target population, their needs, and how you’re meeting those needs.
  • Present committed board members and capable management, staff, and volunteers.
  • Have a legal standing to carry out activities in your country.
  • Ensure appropriate tax status and accounting systems are in place.
  • Showcase relevant market research and/or major accomplishments to date.
  • Prepare a fundraising plan, which seeks support from many different sources.
  • Prepare relevant financial information (audited financials, a budget for the proposed program, a budget narrative explaining how you plan to use the funds).
  • Include a program sustainability plan and a monitoring & evaluation plan.
  • Prepare any additional attachments (such as the annual report).


When you have these on hand, applying for grants and communicating with grantmakers will be much smoother.

Pro tip: Impact measurement has become more important than ever. Think about how you will measure your social impact before applying for a grant, as this might be a deciding factor in grantmakers’ decision-making process.

2. Understand your needs

 Before you start searching and applying for grants, it’s important to make sure you understand what exactly you need funding for.

  • Brainstorm with your team and come up with a list of your needs. Include things that are very specific to your programs and services, existing or not.
  • Prioritize amongst those needs. Which ones are the most important?
  • Come up with a timeline. When do you need these funds?
  • Outline the project you need funding for and then determine the exact amount you need. Outline all costs associated with the project, including staff time, administrative costs, etc.


Pro tip 1:
Create a line-by-line budget. This will both help you narrow down the scope of grants to apply for, and also increase the chances of you getting the grant.

Pro tip 2: Find your keywords. Identify the keywords to use when you're searching within databases and search engines. There are thousands of possibilities and combinations. What are the 10 to 20 keywords you could use to describe your need? Try searching using those. Later on, you can try using their synonyms too.

3. Get real

Grants are great, but they’re not a magic wand. Not only do they need a lot of work, but they also often take a lot of time. It takes time to prepare, to develop the proposal, and then it takes time for the proposal to be assessed. If your need is urgent, grants might not be the right choice. Furthermore, most grants come with ‘strings attached’. They usually intend to address a particular problem, so any grant application must address that exact need and spend money strictly on that project. Since grants take time and resources, unless you can dedicate a staff member or a freelance professional to write, monitor, and report back to the grantmakers, grants might end up being just more work.

Finally, grants aren’t necessarily a sustainable revenue source. Before applying for a grant, it’s very important to get realistic about what applying for grants means, what it will take, and whether you can keep up. 

4. Do prospect research

Before applying for any grant opportunity, it’s important to do prospect research. It’s highly unlikely that your grant application will be approved unless your mission is compatible with the grant makers’ mission and unless your program serves a population or helps solve a problem they are passionate about.

When conducting prospect research and deciding which funding prospect makes your final prospect list, ask yourself:

  • Does this grantmaker typically choose to support nonprofits located in my geographic area (city, region, state, or country)? Is a geographic location specified in the RFP (Request for Proposal)?
  • Does this grantmaker give away the type of funding we’re looking for (programs, projects, general operating support, capital)?
  • Does this grantmaker’s  mission, goals, and areas of interest align with ours?


Pro tip:
Look at who your funding prospects have funded in the past. You can do this by reviewing their IRS Form 990 (do this for free on www.Candid.org). This information can help you find out if your prospects fund organizations like yours. This can then help you speed up the process and narrow down your prospect list.

5. Make sure you match the grant requirements

Before you apply for a grant, take some time to ensure you qualify. Make sure you meet every grant criterion outlined. Applying for grants can take up a lot of time, energy, and money – so save some by making sure you stand a chance. Grant criteria differ considerably depending on the type of funding you’re looking for and depending on who’s providing the funds (e.g. government, large foundation, family foundation, etc.)

Pro tip: Always triple check the deadline and make sure you put a plan in motion that will ensure you meet the deadline.

Where to find grants? 

Government sites and directories

  • Grants.gov 
    Grants.gov is managed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and it offers a database of more than 1,000 grant programs searchable by category, agency, or eligibility.
  • Contract Opportunities
    Contract Opportunities is a database for federal government contracting and procurement opportunities over $25,000.
  • You might want to check out sites that compile grant opportunities in your state, such as this one for Ohio or this one for Alberta.
  • Firstgov for Nonprofits 
    Firstgov gathers information on federal assistance available to nonprofits and links to federal agency websites that provide grants to nonprofits. 

    Pro tip:
    Check out this Acquiring Public Grants Workbook for a detailed guide to acquiring government grants.
  • Peak Proposals


On this page you can find a list of governmental donors and intergovernmental agencies and programs, such as:

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Foundations sites and directories

  • Foundation Center’s Foundation Directory Online (FDO)
    FDO offers information on 226,000 U.S. Foundations and features a global search bar and a comprehensive results page. They also have Advanced Search & Filters fields to edit/refine your search (refine by name, city, state, ZIP, or EIN to get contact details, basic grantmaker information, and links to recent 990s). 
  • Regional Giving Dashboards
    Candid’s regional giving dashboards provide an at-a-glance overview of institutional philanthropy for regions across the country and around the world.
    *Candid was recently formed when GuideStar and Foundation Center merged.
  • Philanthropic Services 
    Philanthropic Services offers US nonprofits the opportunity to browse grant opportunities across the country.
  • Fundsnet 
    Fundsnet is a list of foundation websites by subject. 


Bonus tip:
Look at grantmakers centered on a particular mission area, such as Grantmakers in Film and Electronic Media or the Association of Small Foundations.

Other 

  • Grantstation
    Grantstation databases are tailored for those seeking grants in the U.S., Canada, and internationally. They feature private grantmakers that accept inquiries and proposals from a variety of organizations.
  • Grant Watch
    Grant Watch compiles both government and private foundation grants for nonprofits and charities of every size.
  • Grant Gopher
    Grant Gopher is a database that offers US-based organizations free basic searches (first five search results). You can also sign up and receive a newsletter that includes a selection of open grant opportunities. 
  • Instrumentl
    Instrumentl collects private, corporate, federal and state grants for all nonprofits, all in one place. They also offer tailored matches of foundations and grant opportunities to save you time.
  • Grant Select 
    Grant Select is a searchable list of 10,000+ public and private grantors. 
  • GrantScape
    Their large team of researchers collect opportunities from thousands of different sources and data feed and create an impressive database. GrantScape (at the moment of writing on Aug 20, 2020) features 5,025 Active Grants and $40,170,350,208 total funding available.


COVID-19 Grants

Explore Global Giving’s list of grant and funding opportunities that might help your nonprofit navigate new challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

News Sources and Newsletters

  • Philanthropy News Digest
    Sign up for a free weekly email that lists newly posted RFPs (Requests for Proposals). Note: Don’t rely only on RFPs, otherwise you will miss many grant opportunities.
  • GrantStation Insider 
    GrantStation Insider includes the newest information on grantmakers and upcoming deadlines categorized by national, regional, and federal funding opportunities. Grant Station Insider is delivered on Thursdays. There’s also the GrantStation International Insider for the international audience which is delivered monthly. 
  • You might also want to join the Grants.gov mailing list to receive a daily or weekly digest of current federal funding opportunities.

Google alerts

Pro tip: Set up a Google alert to receive a notification whenever new content related to your grant search shows up in a Google search.

7 Bonus Tips for Finding Grants as a Nonprofit

1. Check your 501(c)(3) status with the IRS

This is generally required to get grant funding. Furthermore, it might be valuable to claim and update your Candid (ex GuideStar) profile as this is what many grantmakers use to evaluate grant applicants.

2. Stay on top of your prospect research

Managing your prospects is key. Have a prospect worksheet or a software program to help you track and organize your information and data.

3. Conduct a quick search engine search

While this might not always yield as many results as using grant databases and directories does, it’s still a worthwhile pursuit. So, search for keywords relevant to your needs, location, and the type of grant you’re looking to get.

For example: 

  • Grants for environmental programs in Alabama
  • Capital grants New York
  • Grants for domestic violence nonprofits in Orange County 

4. Use your network

Never dismiss the effectiveness of  word of mouth when it comes to finding grants. Let your board and your volunteers know you’re putting together a list of potential grantmakers and ask them if they have connections with any grant giving organizations who might be interested in funding your work. If they do, confirm it’s a good match and then kindly ask them if they could introduce you! 

Pro tip: Look at annual reports of other similar nonprofit organizations as well as news articles. Research who is funding organizations similar to yours. Add these to your prospect list.

5. Get to know the funders

To get to know the potential grantmakers, always take the time to review their grant guidelines, eligibility criteria, and Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs). You can also reach out to the prospective funder and ask any clarifying questions (only if doing so is permitted).

Pro tip: It’s smart to start local. Engage with local grantmakers and maybe even invite them to see programs or meet your staff and volunteers. Having established relationships with grantmakers increases your chances of being approved for a grant later on.

6. Confirm the submission process

If the funder has specified that they can be contacted, reach out to them and check if the submission instructions they’ve listed are accurate or have there been any recent changes. 

7. Consider hiring a professional

Applying for a grant takes a lot of time and energy, and requires a specific skill-set. If, at the moment, you don’t have the means and the capacity to manage that, consider hiring a professional grant writer. If you’d rather have a staff member handle this, make sure they have the proper training to write an effective grant proposal.

The Bottom Line

We know fundraising can be exhausting. It can seem like there’s never enough resources to fund the amazing work your nonprofit organization does. This is where grants come in. When done right, grants are an effective and worthwhile way to ensure that your nonprofit can continue carrying out its mission and serving your beneficiaries. However, it’s important to take the time to adequately prepare for the process of applying for grants. The more time you put into preparation and research, the better your results. Then, you’ll need persistence and grit. Grants take planning, preparation, time, as well as resilience (for all those no’s you might receive along the way), but once you get that grant you’ve been working for – it’ll all be worth it! We’ve learned that grants should only be a part of an otherwise diverse fundraising strategy that focuses on individual donors.

To help you out with that, GiveForms lets you create a seamless online donation experience for your individual donors. Use GiveForms to embed a donation form on your website, allowing visitors to donate using a credit card, PayPal, Google Pay, or bank transfers. With a focus on intuitive, human-centered design, our goal is to help you increase your online donations. Create an account for free today!

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