How to Research a Grantmaking Foundation That Has No Website

Steps to take when a mystery foundation looks like a good match for your nonprofit's funding needs.

If you’re looking for foundation grant money for your nonprofit organization, you are hopefully doing some fairly deep research: for example, talking to similarly situated organizations about which foundations fund them, watching the press for announcements of grants to organizations like yours, and searching databases such as those offered by the Foundation Center.

When you come across a promising lead, your first step may be to do an Internet search for its website. And if you're lucky, the website will tell you all about the foundation and the funding opportunities it offers.

But sometimes such a search comes up dry. You may be able to find out basic information on where the foundation is located from external sources, but nothing from the foundation itself, explaining what it’s about, what types of organizations it’s looking to fund, and how to apply for a grant.

What’s next? This article will outline some possible next steps—and discuss when to give up (for the moment, at least).

Learn What Other Organizations the Foundation Has Funded

If you haven’t already done so, your step one should be to figure out what nonprofits have successfully received money from your mystery foundation.

An Internet search for the foundation’s name (in quotes) plus words like “a gift from” or “received a grant from” is a good way to locate press releases or media concerning the recipient organization. Read these for more clues about the foundation’s activities and priorities.

Next, look at the foundation’s Forms 990 (which it must file with the IRS annually and make publicly available.) You can access these online, for example through the Foundation Center’s 990 Finder or Guidestar.

Scroll down to the 990 Supplementary Information page showing “Grants and Contributions Paid During the Year or Approved for Future Payment.” This should show what organizations the foundation made grants to in the past year, and in what amounts.

If what you’re seeing still indicates a good match with your organization, continue your research.

Learn About the Foundation’s Founder and Board Members

If you haven’t already found the names of the foundation’s founder, board members (officers), and current executive director, do so now. The founder’s name may also be the foundation’s name; if it isn’t, a little Googling may turn this information up. The names of other key personnel can be obtained from the Form 990.

Perform an Internet search for each person's name on your list. Some names might not turn up any results at all (or too many results to make sense of, in the case of common names).

Other persons on your list will have a major online presence, and reading about them may turn up mentions of other names on your list. Pay particular attention to each person’s outside interests and relationships to one another. (Obituaries are particularly good for this, as they will often list affiliations and survivors.)

Try to Figure Out Why the Foundations Is Apparently Hiding

The fact that you can’t find out much about the foundation in question may be no coincidence. Grantmaking foundations come in all personalities and with varying motivations for existing. They come in varying sizes, too. Some may have downtown offices with receptionists and staff, while others may exist only as a legal and financial entity, with family members getting together around the dinner table every time they need to hold a board meeting.

Perhaps your foundation prospect has relatively minimal resources, wants to support only a few organizations—ones that it has already identified—or likes to do its own scouting of the nonprofit world for grantees, without having to deal with unsolicited requests. Looking into its grantmaking history will help with this line of inquiry.

As you look at the foundation’s 990s for the past five years or so, patterns may emerge, such as, “This foundation gives only to one college and one type of healthcare research.” You might guess that its founder went to this college and developed this medical condition—and with a little more online searching, you might confirm your hunch.

Or, if you see that most of the people on the leadership list are related by blood or marriage, that might suggest that this a foundation likes to keep to itself. Perhaps its leaders have plenty of causes near and dear to their hearts and see no need to open up to more public involvement or inquiry.

Should You Give Up on This Foundation?

Your research will lead you to conclude that proceeding further would be a waste of time. If the foundation hasn’t funded a new organization in years, or the grants it has made are small or not quite in the same topic area or geographic region as yours anyway, it may be time to move on.

As a last (and unlikely) step, check whether your executive director, board members, or staff happen to know anyone on the board of the foundation. That person may be able to make an inside inquiry.

If you are very brave, you could make a call to the phone number listed on the Form 990—but be aware that this may not be in a formal foundation office. You may disturb the board president on his or her cell phone, in which case the conversation could become awkward very quickly.

If, after all your research, you still feel there’s a chance this foundation might be open to a proposal from you, glean all you can about its application guidelines from external sources, and follow them closely. If you can’t find out enough application information to be helpful, mailing or emailing a short query letter is your best bet.

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