Something I hear often from nonprofits that are newer to grant seeking or are maybe working on their own for the first time, without the benefit of a consultant or specialist staff member, is that they aren’t sure where to find good arts and culture grants. Never mind pulling together all the materials and actually applying…where are the darn things? And how do you decide which ones are worth your time and which aren’t?
Since this question keeps coming up, I thought it would be worthwhile to write an article about it. Fair warning: since this topic is not a superficial one, I will be going in-depth and giving you a true primer on how to locate, research, and select grants. That means this post will be a bit longer than my usual ones. BUT it’s packed with good information and I’ve included plenty of subheadings to help you find the info you want quickly.
Before you get started, think through what you need to fund
Are you looking to fund operating (I mean, who isn’t, right?), do you need to fund a longstanding program, your performance season in its entirety, or a new project? Make sure that you put to paper (or spreadsheet) what you need funding for, how much you need for each thing, and then list out other sources of funding aside from grants for each of them.
In fact, putting together a program budget and tightening up your operating budget are things you should devote some time to in this phase. It will make your life much easier down the road when you’re actually sending out proposals and it will keep you from scrambling at the last minute to pull together these items. It can also help you decide how much you may need to raise from other sources such as donations or sponsorships.
Looking at what you need to fund and how much is needed is also a really great way to get a bird's eye view of what your organization is doing and start prioritizing things. For example, we all know that operating is always important, but in a year/season when you are launching a new program or starting an important capital project you may have other top priorities, even if only temporarily. This will matter when it comes time to look at the funders you’ve researched and decide what you want to ask them for.
I am a total organization nerd. I would go so far as to say that it’s one of my gifts. And I’m only bringing that up because if you aren’t a particularly organized person, then you may be tempted to skip this step. But I would urge you not to, even if organization isn’t really one of your strengths.
My annoying level of organization will save you time and headaches later and if you get in the habit of organizing the grant search and strategization process now, it will become second nature and streamline your workflow.
So how exactly does one go about setting up an organization structure for the grant research process? With the right spreadsheet, of course. Now, if you are one of the lucky nonprofits who has the funds to pay for grant software or if it comes with your donor management software, then you may not need a spreadsheet. If you’re happy with what you have, by all means keep it. But since that is not the case for many orgs, I want to give you an option that will keep you organized and is far from just another crappy spreadsheet.
I call it my Master Grants Planner and I create one for every single client I work with. It’s basically a full-blown planner with tabs that I use to organize grantmaker portal logins, research prospects, budgets, deadlines, reports, and of course, the final strategy that we’ll be executing. It keeps everything of importance in one place, all easily organized and easy to read.
If you need a copy you can get it here:
Once you have your planner or whatever tool you will use to organize your grant seeking efforts, you’re ready to start researching.
Where to Look for grant opportunities
This is usually the sticking point for a lot of nonprofits. They can do the organizational stuff, they know what they need to fund, but they just aren’t sure where to look. And I get it, because there’s no one place to look. No one-stop shop. There are tons of places you can look and so your choices can become overwhelming, you may not be sure where to find the best information, or which choices are free and which you need to pay for.
I can help. But before I do, I want to give you one piece of advice first. If your nonprofit is new to grant seeking, don’t embark on a huge, time-consuming quest to locate dozens of funders. You will be better served by getting in touch with your local community foundation before you do anything else.
Almost every community has one and you should be able to find them with a quick Google search. Call them up, schedule a meeting if you can, and introduce yourself and what your organization does. Start building the relationship now. Community foundations are often your first source for grant awards and once you have gotten a grant award from your local community foundation, it will be easier for you to branch out and attract support from other grant makers.
Another great source are arts councils. If your state has an arts council, they can also often serve as a first (and continuing) source for grants.
As mentioned before, there are lots of places you can look for grants. Here are a few of my favorite, most reliable options:
1.Foundation Directory Online, by Candid (Paid)
Foundation Directory Online (FDO, for short) does require a subscription to access it, but it’s well worth the money. It’s a truly comprehensive database of foundations throughout the United States, complete with data on their giving priorities, restrictions, contacts, 990s, giving patterns, where they give, and more. This is often one of my first sources for grant research of any kind.
If a subscription to FDO isn’t in your budget, call your local library. Many have existing subscriptions that they will allow local nonprofits to use for free as long as you come to the library to do it.
GrantStation is another great database of foundations that I use often. They sometimes have information that FDO does not, although they don’t typically give you the in-depth profile that FDO does and sometimes a foundation you can find on FDO isn’t listed on GrantStation at all (this isn’t common, but it happens occasionally).
GrantStation does require a subscription, but there’s a workaround for this. If you are a member of the Grant Professionals Association (and if you aren’t, why the heck not?) then your membership comes with free use of GrantStation.
Ah, Google. What can’t it do? It’s always worth your time to do some quick Google searches and see what you can dig up. Here are some examples to get you started:
Arts grants [insert your city, state, or region here]
Arts and culture grants [insert your city, state, or region here]
Arts education grants
Arts capital grants
You get the idea. You can try endless combinations. You can also try looking up large corporations and banks in your area. Many banks manage charitable trusts and many corporations also have a foundation which will award grants or sponsorships to organizations operating in their service areas.
4.Board Members (free)
Board members can be a great source of information when you are seeking grants. Tell your board that you are researching new grant prospects and ask them if they know of any grant makers whose funding interests align with your organization’s mission and/or programming. If possible, have them make an introduction to this grant maker so that you can start the relationship building process.
5.Regional Foundation Directories (free)
Many regions or states maintain directories of foundations that fund organizations in that area. These don’t exist for every state of region, but it’s worth a look to see if there’s one for your area. Best of all, you can typically access these for free.
A quick Google search will often help you find out if there’s a directory like this. Try a search similar to this:
Regional grants directory [insert state or city here]
If your organization is seeking government grants, check out www.grants.gov. You can search the site for all kinds of different grant opportunities and narrow your search results down as far as needed. This resource is free, but remember that government grants are typically more time-consuming and complex than your average foundation grant. Make sure that you can devote the time to putting together a great proposal before you waste hours searching for grant opportunities.
7.Sources just for the arts
Now, if you are newer to grants, then you may or may not be ready for some of these as many of the grantmakers below are large foundations or makers of government grants. They also tend to be very competitive.
Nevertheless, the following are important sources for arts and culture grants and you should at least be aware of them, in case any of them are ever a good fit for your org and its programming:
- National Endowment for the Arts
- Charles H. Dater Foundation
- State Arts Councils
- Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
- Hearst Foundation
- Kresge Foundation
- The Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile Jr./USB Foundation
- The Ford Foundation
I could go on and on, but those are just a few to put on your radar.
How to decide which ones to pursue
Once you’ve completed a few grant searches and identified some likely grant opportunities, you may find yourself wondering how you can know which to pursue and which to put aside.
Here are some good guidelines to help you whittle down your list to only the best prospects:
- Look at their giving guidelines & restrictions
If you look at the grant maker’s website or their profile on a grants database (such as Foundation Directory Online or GrantStation), you should be able to read about what kinds of things they like to give out awards for and what kinds of things will typically get denied.
Usually, they come right out and tell you something like this:
“We like to fund X,Y,& Z with a special emphasis on programs that highlight X. We don’t give out capital or operating awards, but will make project or program awards. We don’t fund individuals or certain types of organizations.”
Pay attention to these guidelines and giving priorities, because if you are seeking funding to add a new wing to your art museum and the funder specifically says they don’t make capital awards, you should move on. To send in a proposal anyway would most likely be a waste of your time and the funder’s time.
- Look at where they give
Some funders will make awards nationally or even globally, but more often than not they will have a limited region or area that they are interested in funding. Usually you can find this information spelled out on their website or on their profiles in grants databases. But if you aren’t finding this (or any other info you need), move on to the next step to help you fill in the gaps.
- Check out their 990s
No matter how much information is available on a funder’s website or on their grants database profiles, I always recommend pulling up their 990s anyway. These can be a wealth of information, including information that isn’t explicitly stated anywhere else. In other words, it can help you read between the lines and/or fill in the gaps of your grants research.
You can pull up 990s for free on GuideStar (you can also pull them up from Foundation Directory Online or GrantStation as well). We could do a whole master class on how to read 990s in-depth, but if you want to get a quick idea of what your chances are with a funder, scroll down to the section in their 990 that shows the grants they distributed that year. You should get a listing of who the grant awards went to, where those recipients are located, how much they received, and sometimes it will also tell you what the grant was for.
If the information you got from the funder’s website or profile was incomplete, their 990s will give you a more accurate picture. Are they making grants all over the place or are 99% of them confined to one city or state? How big are these grants? What is the average grant award? Do they typically give to the same exact organizations every year or does the list change each year? If they tell you what the grants are for, do they seem to favor certain types of programs?
Look for patterns in the 990s to help you decide if you should put forth the effort to apply to any given funder.
- Get in touch
If your 990 research left you with further questions, your next step is to get in touch with that funder. In fact, even if you don’t have questions but feel really good about your chances with a funder, your next step is still to get in touch with them!
Email or call them, introduce yourself and your organization, and ask if you could quickly go over the project, program, or need for which you are seeking funding. If they are amenable, briefly outline it and ask if they think it would be a good fit for a grant from their organization. They should hopefully be able to give you an idea as to whether or not this is worth pursuing.
And even if the answer is ‘no’ right now, it may be at a later date. Either way, they now know who you are and you’ve started the process of building that relationship, which will always work in your favor.
- Evaluate the time commitment
Crafting great proposals, budgets, attachment documents, etc. is a time-consuming process. Generally speaking, it isn’t something you can throw together in an hour (or often even in a day).
So once you’ve done the research we talked about above and you’ve got a list of likely proposals in front of you, you will need to dive in a bit deeper to see how much time they will demand of you.
To make this determination, look at what the application process is like. Do they want a letter of intent (LOI), a one-page inquiry letter, or a complex online proposal with multiple attachments? Of course many inquiries and LOIs are short and can be written and edited within a few days. However, some full proposals can take anywhere from 15-40 hours to prepare, particularly if it’s for a larger foundation. And government grants take much more than that!
Also look at the deadline (if there is one). Do you think you can reasonably prepare this letter or proposal by that date? If not, think about applying next round, but don’t send in something half-baked.
Creating a strategy
At this point, you’ve created a list of prospective funders, researched them in order to whittle down that list, and then looked at deadlines and time commitments, which probably resulted in you whittling that list down even further.
It’s time to put it all together into your final grant strategy. I do this in my Master Grants Planner, but again you can do this in a simple spreadsheet if you prefer or you can use specialized software if you have access to it.
Either way, you will want to lay out each grant prospect with your notes on what you will be applying for, how much you will ask for, contact information for that funder, deadlines, etc. Put it all in order and then make sure you have all the relevant dates on your calendar. You should also block out the necessary time to work on these grants so that you don’t miss any deadlines.
Again, if you’d rather have a done-for-you tool that you can plug your strategy into, you can get a free copy of my Master Grants Planner here:
And Voila! You now have a realistic, thoroughly researched, workable grants strategy.
You could complete this process for a specific project or purpose or you could go through this process each year to create an overall annual grants strategy. This is actually a good chunk of the exact process I go through when researching and creating strategies for my own clients. It works for me and for my clients, and it can absolutely work for you, too!
If you have any questions or comments on locating grant makers, researching them, or creating a strategy please leave me a comment below and I will respond!