Prioritizing Your Prospect List

May 26, 2012 | 0 Comments

If you’ve been to a grantwriting workshop, you probably learned that you must do research to identify your funding prospects. You learned that the “shotgun approach” (a letter to every foundation in the state) will fail. You get that.

So, off you go to do your research. You may come back with a long list of foundation prospects. Now what? In my experience, people love to teach you how to use a resource like the Foundation Center’s online database. But few bother to teach you what to do with the results.

You must winnow that list down into a short list of realistic, good-fit prospects. Go for quality, not quantity. Grant proposals take time to write. Lots of time. Maybe you are squeezing proposal writing in between planning the 5K and the year-end mailing. You have to choose wisely which ones will get your time.

When you run your search, you can check a box to exclude from the results foundations who give only to pre-selected organizations. But if you didn't know to do that, skim your list now and pull those funders out first.

Then jump to the “limitations” section of the profile. This avoids the heartbreak of getting excited about a foundation who looks like a great prospect, only to learn as you keep reading that you are not eligible for some reason.

After you exclude prospects for these two obvious reasons, you have to get more strategic and less black and white. Here is what you need to understand, those database profiles are only the beginning. They help you make a list and cross the obvious lemons off the list.

Then you have to dig further. Your two main resources for this are the foundation’s website and their tax return. You will be surprised by how many do not have a website, but search for one. The tax returns are free at

The goal of getting the tax return is to get the complete list of grants made. You don’t have to be a CPA to understand it and don’t have to read the whole thing. But you absolutely have to find out who the foundation supported in the most recent past. Sometimes who they are giving to does not match up with what they say are their priorities . You need to be a bit of a detective to figure this out.

So, here are the things we look for as strong indicators of a good fit:

  • Clear alignment of the funder’s interest with your mission
  • The funder has given in your geographic area
  • The funder has made grants to organizations similar to yours

The more of these you hit, the higher quality the prospect.

Then, here are a few other details to consider about the foundation prospect:

  • They give to the type of project for which you need funding (like a capital project or scholarships)
  • They make grants of the size you need for your project (NOTE: most don’t want to fund your entire project)
  • They make a large number or variety of grants annually (if you see 2-3 years of only a few grants to the same recipients, your chances of breaking in as a new applicant are probably smaller)

Using these criteria, rank your prospects into A,B or C-level prospects. A-level prospects are a perfect fit. You must apply this year! B-level prospects have no reason they would not give to your organization, but no clear connection. Try to work proposals to one or two of these onto your calendar each year. Finally are the C-level prospects. There is no reason they would give to your organization, but you are not explicitly excluded. I put them on my “rainy day” list, for days when the boss asks, “have we really tried absolutely every possibility out there?”

Focus on the Best Prospects 

1. Omit those not accepting applications or whose limitations exclude you 

 2. Find a clear link between their funding priorities and your project

3. Investigate who they gave to in the last 2 or 3 years

4. Be realistic — ask yourself, “why would this foundation support us?”


What other criteria do you use to decide whether to apply to a foundation?


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