Grant research: Focus your fundraising energy on the best fit grants

Grant research

By Sedora Tantraphol

Let’s face it. Grant research requires a lot of grunt work. There’s just no getting around it. A thorough research and vetting process is key to focusing your limited energy and efforts on identifying the strongest fit grants. In the decade that I have served as a grant adviser to nonprofits, I have seen how it’s especially important to pursue funding opportunities strategically  — especially if you have a limited fundraising department in terms of personnel, time, energy, and money.

In general:

  • Don’t waste your time applying to funders that aren’t a fit.
  • Only apply to funders that are a good fit.
  • Focus on creating really strong language.

This post pulls together the best research strategies.

Keep reading below for more on these tips: 

  • Search using Foundation Directory Online (FDO).
  • Search funders of similar organizations.
  • Set up alerts.
  • Have RFPs sent to your inbox.
  • Network.
  • Foster relationships.
  • Shore up on the fundamentals.

Search using Foundation Directory Online (FDO).

This is the ultimate database of over 140,000 grantmakers, updated weekly. There is a new Workspace prospect management feature that allows you to build a pipeline of funders within FDO itself, by tagging potential funders, assessing criteria/fit, managing tasks and proposal amounts, and saving searches and setting up notifications.

We’ve found that a lot of nonprofits can’t afford or don’t want to invest in the cost of an FDO subscription (which ranges from $480 – $1,800 a year), so Moonsail North maintains a subscription to give our clients access to this powerful and efficient search tool.

Pro tip: we recommend searching one subject area at a time. FDO offers tutorials from basic to advanced keyword and filter searches for better results.

Search funders of similar organizations.

You need to know who the players are in your field. If you provide early childhood development services, for example, start by identifying a few early childhood development service providers in your area. Look at their funding sources (website, annual report, IRS Form 990 — listed on Guidestar).

Make a list of the foundations. Note that many small private family foundations give to people they know and often do not have a website or publicly list contact information, so you may not have much success with those.

Set up alerts.

You can set up alerts with, in addition to notifications from local city, county, or state government alert systems.

If your organization is in a position to apply for government grants and wants to pursue government contracts, it’s a good idea to set up alerts so you receive emails about upcoming RFPs. Note that government grants are typically very rigorous applications and involve a lot of reporting and regulations!

Have RFPs sent to your inbox.

Sign up with Philanthropy News Digest or other similar grant-related publications to receive weekly emails about RFPs by topic area.


Start to create a culture of philanthropy in which everyone in the organization is involved and understands the pressures and time involved with fundraising. There are several benefits to networking outside your organization as a way to support grant research. It’s critical to make sure your board, staff, and volunteers are always on the lookout for who they might know on foundation boards.

When you’re ready to apply, remember that warm approaches are always preferred when leveraging networks — provide each board member (and possibly well connected volunteers and staff) with a board and staff list of the foundation. Have each member use LinkedIn to see if there are any connections. Then, use them! This requires you to build in a healthy runway lead time. Give deadlines to board members, and follow up and provide support to them.

If you are the organization’s grant writer, consider joining the Association of Fundraising Professionals and consider getting your Certified Fund Raising Executive credentials. Not only will you learn about opportunities, but you will be able to compare approaches, and have a sympathetic ear when you’re in what is often called “the groan zone” with your fundraising efforts — that deadline crunch time.

Foster relationships.

Maybe your organization is too small right now, but a grantmaker likes your work. Maybe their funding is already allocated for this year, but want to keep you in mind for the future. Maybe you already get funding. Keep in touch with the program officer in an appropriate manner — ask if it would be OK to send them annual reports or brochures, take them to coffee, etc. In short, gauge their level of accessibility. Continue to build the relationship once you receive funding. It’ll help you to increase your award amount and pivot should funding priorities change.

Continue to build the relationship once you receive funding. It’ll help you to increase your award amount and pivot should funding priorities change.

Shore up on the fundamentals.

If you’re really new to the fundraising game, take grant writing workshops from your local nonprofit capacity building center and join LinkedIn groups for grant writers and fundraising professionals.  

After you’ve created a list of potential funders, you’ll need to then vet each one.

  • Look first for eligibility / funding restrictions. Note: if there is a funding restriction such as geography and you are relatively close by and a good fit in every other respect, it might be worth making a call to the program officer to see if they will consider your application.
  • If you are eligible, continue on to look for funding priorities (for example, within a broad issue area like homeless services, some funders may want to fund emergency shelter beds while others may focus on case management services).  
  • Look at the deadline, funding requirements, award range, and determine whether the grant is “worth it” to your organization to pursue.
  • Before applying, it’s often good to call the program officer and give them an elevator pitch of your work to see if there are any insights they can give you. For some, they may already know that they have earmarked all their funding for the year already, and may help you decide to pass on the opportunity and focus your energy on other opportunities. Program officers can answer your questions and also provide you with tips to frame your proposal a certain way.
  • Factor in your history. Maybe your organization or particular leaders in your organization have less-than-stellar relationships with the grantmaker. If this is the case, before applying again, you may need to cultivate the relationship. Don’t expect immediate funding. It might take some time. On the other hand, if you’ve received funding in the past, know the amounts and what happened to cause the pause in funding — it raises red flags if you apply as if for the first time and the program officer remembers your organization’s past history with that grantmaker!

Found the perfect grant? Check out how to handle the all-important sustainability question that’s part of more and more grant requests. Contact sedora@moonsailnorth if you have questions about grants!