The Hunt for Grantmaking Gold

by Phil Newton
Perennial Partners

I’ll admit it: I love to binge-watch. I’ll settle into the couch with a blanket and pillows and set off on an adventure with an absorbing show, whiling away the hours. My current obsession is Aussie Gold Hunters. These intrepid prospectors risk everything to uncover riches previously thought unattainable, in harsh conditions.

I identify with them because I’m a grant writer. We both love to search for buried treasure. Why am I writing to you about grants in the spring of 2018? There’s never been a better time to get good at writing grants. Consider:

- The Dow is, at least at the time of this writing, in the midst of its own gold rush. As a result, new family foundations are forming.
- Existing grantors, highly invested in the market, are flush with cash.
- Corporations, now basking in favorable tax laws, are diverting additional dollars to philanthropy. Many use a grants-like process for distributing funds.

Want to get started finding grants for your charity, church or school? The two most important things to do are: 1) Get institutionally ready; and 2) Get good at Guidestar.

Get Ready to Dig
If you don’t have these items ready at a moment’s notice, there’s no sense in turning over a shovel-full of dirt prospecting. Here’s what you’ll need:

  • 501(c)(3) letter, also known as an IRS exemption letter, from the feds—not your state. If you’re not a 501(c)(3), there are very few grants available to you.
  • A list of your board of directors with board office held, employer and city of residence.
  • Your charity’s latest 990 IRS form. If you don’t fill out the long form, you’ll have trouble getting larger grants.
  • Your charity’s latest audited financial statement. Again, if your charity does not do an annual audit, you’ll have trouble getting larger grants.
  • Current annual budget for the charity and a budget for each program and project.
  • Total number of persons helped last year, categorized by demographics—the more specific, the better.
  • Mission statement, list of programs and history of the organization.
  • Description of how you collaborate with others.
  • What exactly each program does, how many it serves, what outcomes it produces, and how these outcomes improve lives.
  • How, specifically, you’ll publicize the successful grant to your circle of influence.

If you have all of these, you’ll be like the Aussie gold hunter with her $7,000 metal detector, ready to pinpoint a BB-sized nugget under three feet of soil.

Another noted treasure hunter, Indiana Jones, once said to his students, “Ninety percent of archaeology is done in the library.” It’s the same if you’re prospecting for gold as a grant writer. You must do your research, which brings us to Guidestar.

Follow the Map
Guidestar is a treasure map. To be precise, guidestar.org is a website that lists grantors along with their 990 tax forms—from which one can learn the who, what, when, where and why of each generous group. A 990 will reveal if they are taking grant requests, which charities they gave to most recently and how much, the names of the principals at each grantor, sometimes how to approach guidelines or even deadlines, and more.

It takes practice and time to get good at using Guidestar, but it’s worth it. You’ll be able to sort lists of nonprofits by gross receipts, relevance and organization name. Just searching “Peoria” gives 1,689 listings, for example. Refining the sorted list by gross receipts lets you discover which foundations in the area have the most resources.

Guidestar also delivers a 990 for most foundations, right there on the site. From a 990, one can find out how much money a foundation has, if it is making any grants, if it is open to getting a grant from someone it is not already funding, who its board members are, which charities earned a grant that year (and how much!) and much more.

Guidestar is one of the few free databases on the web that will deliver a no-cost 990, and for that alone it is invaluable. There are other, more costly databases out there that will sift through information on grantors and provide you with custom-made, “X-Marks the Spot” grant treasure maps. But why do that when, with a little time and brainpower on your part, you can save the expense and learn to uncover the gold yourself! Guidestar is free, but you must sign up for an account.

Remember, before you set out on an expedition for grants, your organization needs to be institutionally-ready, with all the elements at hand to build a grant proposal at a moment’s notice. Guidestar is your map, sharper than your old Boy Scout orienteering compass. Learn to use it and you’ll be able to find the grants available and how to approach each grantor with your excellent proposal. Got gold fever yet? iBi

Phil Newton is founder and partner of Perennial Partners, a Peoria-based consulting practice that helps charities, churches and schools. Visit perennialpartnersci.com or call (309) 689-2809 for a no-obligation cup of coffee and brainstorming session.

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