Starting Your Nonprofit Grant Application Story the Right Way

The start of the nonprofit grant application process is similar to writing this article.

At first, you have a few ideas of where you want to start, but the emptiness in front of you and the blinking cursor can be overwhelming.

There are so many options on where to begin. Should I start with an inspiring anecdote? (Tina, the development director, found the perfect grant in the most unlikely of places…)  A bold proclamation? (Grants are out there just waiting for you.) Or perhaps a nice little simile. Let’s do that.

In the grant world, you face an expansive world to find foundations who will support you, but knowing how to navigate the seamlessly endless possibilities can make the application process a lot easier to manage.

Instead of relying on internet searches or your friend’s sister’s neighbor who sits on a foundation board, here are a few tips you can use to help find grants that are the right fit for your nonprofit.

Shop Local

It is tempting to chase grants from big name corporations or wealthy foundations, but your odds of receiving the grant are much greater if you apply to foundations based in your home community. They will be more likely to invest in your nonprofit to make the community a better place to live.

Similarly, your research should also start at the local level. If you can find out which organization or group puts together these lists, you’ll hit a treasure trove of possibilities. Often governmental agencies will compile grants in your state.  For example, in Nebraska the Department of Economic Development puts together a directory of grants available in the state. The materials and list available in each state varies, so contact your local economic development agency to see what resources are available.

Formula 990

Even if you think you have pegged the perfect foundation for your organization, take the extra step to make sure and look at their most recent 990 form.

As you know from your own nonprofit finances, the 990 is an annual report required by the IRS, which includes information about an organization’s mission, programs and finances. The information included in the last category can greatly assist you in your grant search.

Each foundation is required to disclose who they awarded money, where those organizations are located, for what purpose they were given the money and how much was awarded. Read over who receives money and see if you can see a pattern in the organizations that receive donations. In addition to the recipients of the awards, each foundation includes their application process (or at least contact information for applications) in their 990.

Several agencies post 990 forms each year, including Guidestar and Charity Navigator. One of the most useful is the Foundation Center’s Foundation Directory Online. Their search tool looks for grants by name, location, type or EIN, or a combination of those categories.

Aside from FDO, you may also find grant tools like Instrumentl helpful. Instrumentl’s Foundation Finder tool lets you quickly identify which organizations give the most by region, along with key contact information and giving trends over the years.

Stick With It

By following these two tips, you can quickly narrow your nonprofit grant application process, but by no means will those steps mean automatic approval. You still need to tell your story, provide a compelling application and show the impact your nonprofit will have if funded.

These tips shouldn’t dissuade you from applying to any foundation based on their size or location. Ultimately, it depends on your judgment of how your nonprofit fits with the granting agency’s mission. Put in the work to develop a relationship with the foundation.

Money isn’t going to fall magically in your lap, but with a little strategy, research and great storytelling your grant writing plan can have a storybook ending.


Lincoln Arneal

Lincoln Arneal was a Senior Editor at Nonprofit Hub who brought loads of real-world nonprofit experience to the team. He was the past executive director of a nonprofit that provided leadership development to junior high and high school students. He looked to bring the insights from his time forming, developing, and running a nonprofit to help others in their quest to do good. Lincoln also had a legal background and had written for various newspapers (covering high school sports) for the past 15 years. He could be followed on Twitter at @NPLNK.

September 7, 2022

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