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Tag Archives: IRS Form 990-PF

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.

These are the last six steps of a 12-step process for planning a proposal to win a grant from a private foundation:


1. Structure. Conduct further research about your prioritized foundations. Use directories, databases, and foundation websites to identify each prospect’s founder, board members, and trustees. Review websites and Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Form 990-PF filings for lists of recent grantees. Compare and contrast the grantees with your organization. Locate and review recent news articles about grants awarded by your prioritized foundations.


2. Prepare. Create three proposal frameworks. If the foundation publishes them, create a file or checklist of its review criteria and proposal content requirements. Create a second one of your project’s key selling points as they relate to the foundation’s criteria. Lastly, create one for each foundation’s publishing, transmission, and submission requirements.


3. Present. Compile a set of questions for each foundation, create a project presentation team, and arrange to call or visit your prioritized foundations. Always be sure they welcome such calls or visits before making them. Consider your readiness, the timing, and the potential benefits and risks of making direct contact with each foundation. Be certain to have one of your upper level executives serve on your team. Describe your project and sell its core ideas. Ask questions for clarification and record the answers. Follow each site visit quickly with a personalized brief note signed by an executive administrator.


4. Refine. Revise your project after your calls or visits, if you made any. Incorporate insights you gained from doing your research and preparing your three frameworks. Also incorporate insights you acquired through all contact with any representatives of each foundation.


5. Develop. Fully develop the plans for the project. Establish organizational capacity, substantiate needs, formulate goals and objectives, specify key activities, develop timelines, identify appropriate staff, articulate evaluation plans, and delineate budgets. Include appropriate attachments or appendices such as itemized budgets, board members, evidence of non-profit or other legal status, most recent annual financial audit report, and annual report.


6. Deliver. Write and submit a letter of inquiry or a full proposal consistent with each foundation’s preferences, requirements, and expectations. Acknowledge and respect the foundation’s funding decisions after its review of your proposal.


Later posts will provide extensive glossaries of terms used in writing winning grant proposals.

It can help in winning a grant to consider planning a proposal to a private foundation as a 12-step process. These are the first six steps.


1. Search. Use a project outline or a similar device as a guide for planning and identifying a suitable project. Research foundation websites, state directories of foundations, and Foundation Center (or other) databases. Review tables of contents, search options, and instructions about how to use the directories and databases. Refer to glossaries, if any, to clarify terms as needed. Use subject topic options and types of support options to help narrow the search.


2. Review. Match up the project with each identified foundation grant program. Consider each possible match in terms of applicant eligibility, types of available support, geographic focus, subject focus, application deadlines, ranges of recent grant awards, and types and locations of recent grant recipients. Sort the prospect list into stronger prospects and weaker ones. Eliminate prospects that decline unsolicited proposals.


3. Align. Identify up to ten potential sources of foundation funding. Focus first on foundations with a presence in your city or county or state. Using foundation websites or those of Guidestar or the Foundation Center, look up their filings of IRS 990-PF forms. Review their grant-making programs and priorities. Examine their annual reports and position papers, if any. Look for and note any clues about their passions, agendas, and funding patterns. Consider the degree of fit between these and your project.


4. Refine. Prepare to contact your leading prospects. Record and use their preferred means of contact: e-mail, phone, visit, or letter. Contact your selected foundations, where possible and necessary, to request any materials you cannot already find for downloading from their websites. Such materials may include: recent grant awards, recent newsletters and annual reports, other foundation publications, and application guidelines or templates.


5. Analyze. Organize the materials you collect about each foundation. Use database software or create a searchable spreadsheet. Populate the database with information about local and regional foundations. Track the nature and extent of your prospect research. Create accurate records of any contacts with selected foundations. Document their responses to requests for information and your follow-up to them.


6. Revise. Analyze your databases and materials to narrow your focus. Reconsider the degree of fit of your organization and your project with each selected target foundation. Order in ranked priorities those foundations whose grant-making programs appear to have the best fit with you. Work down through the resulting list.


Six more steps for winning foundation grants will appear here soon.

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