Grant Research Tools – Navigating the Options

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In the early 2000s, I met with the executive director of an education fund in rural Virginia to kick off what would eventually be a seven-year engagement as a grant writer. She told me that my predecessor had already done grant research for the organization, and all I had to do was to follow up on the leads. She then handed me an enormous loose-leaf notebook with hundreds of pages of grant descriptions printed straight from the Foundation Center’s database. Someone had searched on “education” and “Virginia” and printed out all the results – and charged the nonprofit a fee for their “research.”

Amy Silver O'Leary, Director of Resource DevelopmentThat wasn’t the last time such a notebook was handed to me by a nonprofit at the beginning of a consulting engagement. Usually, the “research” had been done by an inexperienced volunteer, but sometimes the organization had paid good money for the reports. Sadly, they weren’t worth the cost of the paper and ink that had been wasted on them. Someone with little experience had gone to the library – or in one case had purchased a $1,100 disk – and run a search. They printed the results, punched holes in the pages, and handed the notebook to the nonprofit.

I’m sure some of the hundreds of foundations listed in those notebooks would have been good funder prospects for my new clients, but no one had taken the next step of properly qualifying the prospects to make sure the nonprofit was eligible. It made a lot more sense for me to go back to the Foundation Directory, with help from Google (which did exist at that point), and start from scratch than to try to research this too-large pool of undifferentiated prospects one at a time.

Here lies the challenge with grant research: you want prospects, but only the most highly-qualified ones, because many, if not most, of those matching your general criteria are a waste of time to pursue. What nonprofit has time to waste? (Back then, I remember being told on several occasions, “You need to think positively, and apply for the grants anyway!” I would answer, trying to appear tactful: “As I don’t have enough time to write proposals for all the grants we’re eligible for, spending time on grants we’re not eligible for is probably not a sound strategy.”)

The trick to grant research is to find all the grant opportunities that your organization has a high probability of winning – and to winnow out the opportunities that you have a zero-to-slim chance of winning. Those notebooks are haystacks, and you’re looking for the sharpest needles.

Unless your nonprofit has a multi-person development shop with dedicated staff members doing research and writing proposals, grant research will always pose this kind of challenge. How can you make sure you’re finding all the grants you’re not just eligible for but could actually secure, while simultaneously saving time by excluding the grants you have little chance of winning? There are several different grant research tools, each with different strengths and weaknesses and dramatically different costs. As with all tools, you have to pick the right one for the job and know how to use it to get the most power out of it.

To help nonprofits navigate the confusing world of grant research databases, we explored some of the most popular tools and compared them. Our resource page on Grant Research Tools provides more background information and a link to a chart that expresses my opinion about the strengths and weaknesses of several tools, to help readers identify which one might be the best match for their organization.

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