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Finding good leads for grant funding (or doing prospect research) can be one of the most difficult and time-consuming aspects of grant seeking. A very helpful step in this search – in the American context at least – is to look up a grant maker’s recent filings of Form 990-PF or Form 990. Such forms, and others like them, are the detailed yearly information returns grant makers submit to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).


This post discusses where grant seekers can find and view these returns. An earlier post discussed how to extract useful information from a Form 990-PF.


Grant Maker Information Returns:

Each year, private foundations in the United States of America must file a Form 990-PF with the IRS. The 990-PF is a public document that provides the filer’s address and contact information, identifies the filer’s executive officers, board of directors, and trustees, and presents financial data about the filer. It also describes the filer’s grant application procedures and deadlines and presents a complete list of grants awarded in the reporting period. Most such filings are available in Portable Document Format (PDF) and may be viewed using Adobe Reader, which is free software downloadable on the Internet.


In the United States, only private foundations must file Form 990-PF. Community foundations and grant-making public charities must file Form 990. Direct corporate giving programs are not required to file any annual information returns with the IRS.


Foundation Center Finder Tools:

The Foundation Center is an invaluable resource for researching grant makers’ filings of Forms 990 and 990-PF. They are accessible on its website via the 990 Finder, a free searchable database of 990-PFs and 990s filed by American private foundations and charities. In addition, researchers may look up private grant makers in the United States using the Foundation Finder. This free tool provides basic information as well as access to 990-PFs and 990s.


Other Options:

Researchers have other options than the Foundation Center. Registered users of GuideStar may use a free feature to examine or retrieve 990-PFs in its searchable database. They may also subscribe to more extensive and specialized premium services that provide access to information on Forms 990 and 990-PF. In addition, the Economic Research Institute has an extensive database of Form 990s, which is searchable for free and without pre-registration.


Beyond these large searchable databases, many individual grant makers now post their three most recent filings of Form 990s or Form 990-PFs on their websites.


In examining a 990-PF filing, if grant seekers know what to look for and how to interpret what they see, they may improve the results of their prospect research.


This post covers several useful aspects of 990-PF filings, such as but not limited to contact information, application procedures, and grants awarded.


Reporting Period:

On Page 1, near its top, are blanks for the period a Form 990-PF filing is to cover. By definition, a calendar year starts January 1 and ends December 31. Many foundations use it as their fiscal year. If a foundation’s fiscal year is not a calendar year, the blanks will state different start and end dates. The fiscal year governs the timing of a foundation’s grant-making activities and thus may affect the timing of an applicant’s proposals.


Contact Information:

Page 1 asks for the foundation’s current name and address (Section G), and its telephone number (if it has one) (Section B). Potential applicants should crosscheck the specifics with the foundation’s website, if any, since the information may not be up to the moment.


Foundation Assets:

On Page 1, Section I states the fair market value of the foundation’s assets as of year-end. This figure is one indicator of the foundation’s size. In general, each year, by rule, foundations must expend 5% or more of their assets in making qualified contributions, gifts, and grants. Consequently, at a bare minimum a foundation’s assets should be at least 20 times greater in value than the applicant’s possible grant request.


Foundation Staff:

In Part I, Lines 14-15, reports employee salaries, wages, and benefits. Sums significantly larger than zero imply that the foundation has at least part-time staff (one or more) to handle applicant queries.


Grants Awarded:

In Part I, Line 25, Column D gives the total contributions, gifts, and grants the foundation paid during the year of filing. This amount reflects the foundation’s recent actual grant-making activity. It should be several multiples larger than the applicant’s possible grant request.


Foundation Management:

In Part VIII, Section 1 names the officers, directors, trustees, and foundation managers, among others. The list represents who manages the foundation and who makes decisions about grant proposals. Researching their biographies may reveal possible connections between the applicant’s Board or staff and the foundation’s Board or staff; it may also disclose possible leads for initial contact and/or proposal selling points.


Charitable Activities:

Part IX-A lists the foundation’s four largest direct charitable activities during the tax year. The list is one source of possible insights into the foundation’s priority beneficiaries and program areas. Review of the foundation’s website and publications, if any, may verify whether these priorities remain in effect after the reporting period ended.


Application Procedures:

In Part XV, Section 2 summarizes the foundation’s application submission procedures: to whom to address the application (Line A), what type and content of application are required (Line B), submission deadlines (Line C), and restrictions and limitations (Line D). A checkbox, if left blank, will indicate that a foundation accepts unsolicited requests for funds. Again, applicants should crosscheck the particulars by reviewing a foundation’s website, if any.



Grant-Making History:

In Part XV, Section 3 lists recipients – and amounts awarded – of grants and contributions made during the year or approved for future payments. The more that the details (e.g., type of recipient, location of recipient, amount awarded) match those describing the applicant and its contemplated grant proposal, the stronger the foundation should be as a lead for future funding.

One key to winning a grant is to be aware of patterns among potential grant makers. This post highlights several recent and current patterns in grant making in the United States as a whole.


The Foundation Center conducts periodic surveys of samples of the nation’s foundations and publishes summaries of its findings online. Among other topics of potential interest to grant seekers, the surveys of various categories of grant-making foundations look at types of support, types of beneficiaries, and types of program focus areas.


Types of Support:

As a percentage of their total funding, foundations continue to favor requests for program support far more than other requests. Based on a sample of 1,490 larger foundations, surveyed in 2010, 50% of grants were for program support, another 20% were for general or operating support, and 18% were for capital support. Grant seekers should note that subgroups of foundations – such as family foundations or community foundations – do not necessarily share the same patterns of grant making as may prevail among all foundations.



Based on the same sample, again as percentages of total funding, the top beneficiary groups for all foundations are: economically disadvantaged (29%), children and youth (20%), women and girls (8%), and ethnic and racial minorities (7%). Again, grant-making tendencies within the subcategories of foundations differs from the overall patterns.


Program Focus Areas:

Among the many possible program focus areas in grant making, health vies with education for pre-eminence. As percentages of total funding, based on all grants of $10,000 or more awarded by a sample of 982 larger independent foundations, surveyed in 2012, the top program focus areas are: health (25%), education (24%), human services (15%), and arts and culture (14%).


Consequently, when viewed on a nationwide basis, the most opportunities for securing a grant from a foundation in 2012 appear to lie with applicants that seek program support for delivering health or educational services for persons who are economically disadvantaged. As one might expect, the actual number of such opportunities varies significantly with an applicant’s specific geographic location and with the specific type of foundation it approaches for funding. Potential grant makers are far more numerous in the country’s most populous states, and family foundations are far more numerous than other types of foundations.

The supply of grants is shrinking, even while the national demand for them continues to grow. This post is one in a series concerning trends impacting the future of grant making.


Diminished Assets:

Without assets whose growth in value outpaces annual inflation rates and annual grant awards, the Nation’s grant-making foundations cannot continue to make grants indefinitely. Yet, after nearly five years, foundation assets have not yet returned to their pre-recession levels. The Chronicle of Philanthropy has reported that the ten wealthiest foundations alone saw their assets’ value decline by more than $25 billion, or about $1 in every $4 of their value before the economic crisis of 2008, a plunge from which they’ve yet to recover. In 2011 alone, foundation endowments shrank by about 3.5%, even after making slight gains in each of the preceding two years.


Anemic Asset Growth:

The Foundation Center reports that all foundations awarded a total of $45.7 billion in grants in 2010 and $46.9 billion in grants in 2011, a 2.6% gain before inflation. Its most recent forecast growth of 1%-3% in giving during 2012 will barely match the projected inflation rate.


Decreased Grant Making:

Independent foundations consistently account for more than 70% of grant making among all foundations. Grants by independents amounted to $32.5 billion in 2010, down by 0.7% from 2009 and the second year-to-year decline in such grant making in a decade. Among respondents to the Foundation Center’s latest Foundation Giving Forecast Survey, 31% of corporate foundations, 40% of community foundations, and 39% of independent foundations predicted decreased giving in 2012.


Absent Alternatives:

During times of contraction and retrenchment in federal and state grant making, some political pundits have posed soliciting more grants from the Nation’s foundations as a viable alternative for non-profit organizations, among other grant seekers. However, the Chronicle of Philanthropy points out that “…foundation support is no panacea… because grant makers don’t have nearly enough money to make up for the sums state and federal governments are withdrawing.” Its forecast for those seeking grants from foundations may also resonate: “For grant seekers, one thing is quite certain: Foundation giving is unlikely to rebound anytime soon….”


Sooner or later, many grant seekers visit a Foundation Center Cooperating Collection to do an online prospect search. After spending an hour or less, they often leave smiling broadly, having just sent long lists of leads to their e-mail accounts. But what do they do next?


Prospect Research:

How do experienced grant seekers make sense of their sometimes lengthy lists? How do they decide which leads are worth pursuing and which ones are dead-ends? As they study each grant maker profile, they do so by posing and answering questions such as those presented here.


Descriptors Questions
Physical Location Is the foundation local?
  How near is it to the applicant?
Website Is there one?
Limitations Does the applicant fall within any one or more of them?
Type of Grantmaker Is the grant maker an independent foundation?
  Is it a family foundation?
  Is it a corporate charitable giving program?
IRS 990-PF Forms What years are available?
  What is the most current year available?
Deadline(s) Is there one or more? When is it or when are they?
Purposes/Activities Do they match the applicant’s purposes/intended activities?
Fields of Interest Does they match the applicant’s interests?
Trustees/Directors Does the applicant have a connection to any of them?
Financial Data Are the asset amounts more than $100,000?
  Is total giving more than $50,000?
Selected Grants Does the grant maker profile list any grant award selections?
  If so, for what amounts were they?
  If so, to what kinds of organizations were they made?


A later post will discuss how and why answers to these specific questions will help potential applicants to winnow the grains of strong leads from the chaff of weak ones.



The competition for grants is fierce these days. Foundation assets are stagnant or declining while governments pursue fiscal austerity measures. In 2012, nonprofits need all the keys they can find to unlock the grant makers’ strongboxes and win significant grant awards.


This post presents a few places where nonprofits can go to find potential grants from corporations and foundations – either for free or at a modest cost. An earlier post focuses on resources for improving organizational readiness to pursue grants.


Foundation Center:

The Foundation Center produces and sells many tools for grant seekers. It publishes online and print directories, books on writing proposals, and many other valuable materials. Among its resources for grant seekers are:

  • Searchable online databases of grant makers, grants, and IRS Form 990 filings online
  • A catalog of nonprofit literature
  • On-call researchers available through an associates program
  • A short course on writing grant proposals
  • A collection of grant makers’ requests for proposals
  • A peer-to-peer philanthropy message board


In addition, the Center maintains an extensive searchable database of grant makers.


Fundsnet Services:

Fundsnet Services provides free access to resources about grants, fundraising, philanthropy, foundations, and nonprofits, including a database of corporate and foundation grant makers, which is both searchable and sorted by 20-plus topical areas. It lacks the depth and breadth of the Foundation Center, but it is a free and easily navigated place to start a search.


Chronicle of Philanthropy:

The Chronicle of Philanthropy presents information useful to seekers of private donations (gifts) and foundation grants on such topics as:

  • Grant seeking
  • Fundraising
  • Philanthropic giving
  • Management
  • Data, trends, and causes in philanthropy


The website also features a very useful current calendar of foundation application deadlines.


Grantsmanship Center:

The Grantsmanship Center offers a wide array of free and fee-based tools for seekers of grants from both federal and private sources, among which are:

  • Five different training programs
  • Proposal review and other consulting assistance
  • Publications on prospect research, proposal planning, and proposal research
  • The comprehensive, online, searchable GrantDomain grant maker database


May you search well and prosper!


The competition for grants is fierce these days. Foundation assets are stagnant or declining while governments pursue fiscal austerity measures. In 2012, nonprofits need all the keys they can find to unlock the grant makers’ strongboxes and win significant grant awards.


This post focuses on improving organizational readiness to pursue grants. A later post will feature places where nonprofits can go to find potential grants from corporations and foundations – either for free or at a modest cost.



GuideStar provides access to information on 1,800,000 Internal Revenue Service (IRS)-recognized tax-exempt organizations. Among the nonprofits in its databases are most of the Nation’s 80,000-plus private foundations. Its database of 5,400,000 IRS Form 990 images is useful for researching the 990-PF (private foundation) filings of prospective grant makers and exploring their historical patterns of grant making.


Maine Association of Nonprofits:

Like other associations elsewhere, the Maine Association of Nonprofits (MANP) assists nonprofits within that State in areas related to nonprofit management. Among its services are educational workshops designed to build perspectives, skills, and resources of nonprofit boards and staff leadership. Among other concerns, MANP focuses its services on:

  • Communications
  • Evaluation
  • Grant writing
  • Fundraising
  • Public relations
  • Social media


In delivering useful training, MANP works closely with the Maine Philanthropy Center, which is part of the Foundation Center’s national network of cooperating collections.


Council on Foundations:

The Council on Foundations is a Washington, DC, area-based nonprofit membership association of 2,100 grant-making foundations and corporations with total assets of more than $282 billion. It is an abundant source of insights about grant making from the grant makers’ viewpoints. Among its many resources are:

  • National standards (e.g., for community foundations)
  • Professional development (e.g., conferences, webinars, and seminars)
  • A career center


Centers for Nonprofit Management:

In geographic regions across the United States is a number of Centers for Nonprofit Management, each of which provides assistance to its member nonprofits, including services useful to grant seekers. Among such services are:

  • Brand management
  • Board development
  • Organizational development
  • Fundraising planning and coordination
  • Strategic planning
  • A consultant directory
  • Executive searches
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