Research Is a Key First Step in Fundraising

(INN’s fundraising consultant Irma Simpson wrote this article in 2015.)

Fundraising is not rocket science, but it is time-consuming, bush-beating work, and unfortunately there are no shortcuts. However, there is a lot of help out there to guide you to resources you need to streamline your efforts.

Sometimes, it seems as though there is too much information; when you plug “fundraising resources” into a search engine, you get upwards of 92 million hits. Narrowing that to “fundraising+journalism nonprofit organizations” brings it down to about 2,400, which is still daunting.

We’re going to start with some tips on researching foundations — how to find a fit and how to approach funders. What follows are a few resources that might help you along the way, and some steps you and your staff can take in your ongoing quest for foundation support.

Your first step is finding a “fit” between your organization and a funder. There are very few comprehensive databases that list all foundations currently operating in the US. The best one is Foundation Directory Online which is not free, but it’s worth it. Fees range from $50-$200/month, in three levels (depending on how many foundations and the depth of the data you want).

The best thing about this site is that you can sign up for a month or two, using that time to download funder profiles and build your own database. Then you can unsubscribe and re-up later if you want. It’s easy to use and gives comprehensive information on each foundation, such as program officers, grant lists, board members, and the application process. There is also an option to try it for free.

You can also use Guidestar if you know which organization you’re looking for. Let’s say you have found a funder that might be a fit, and they do not have a website. (Family foundations often don’t — they may have a lot of money to give, but for whatever reason, no online presence.) Guidestar is useful in looking up their tax reporting form (990), which will list all their grantees and amounts.

Another source that most people don’t think about are regional grantmakers’ associations (RAGS), of which there are 33 nationwide, all of which have web links on the above site.

Each regional organization doesn’t always list its members, but it is worth contacting them via phone or email to ask for some help in identifying all the funders in your community or region and which ones might be interested in your program. An aside: These regional associations have regular meetings where they discuss a community issue and invite local nonprofits to talk to them.

The website Inside Philanthropy also charges a fee (somewhat hefty at $37/month), but it is chock full of news about the funding world, and they are very good at covering the latest journalism funding news. You can get five free views the first time you log on. Here is a link to their guide to journalism funders. Most of the funders listed are the usual suspects, but there are some nuggets there, especially if you are looking for video journalism support.

Your next research step is to dig into their websites, 990, and/or other data to see what their process is. Look at their grant lists and carefully read their guidelines. Check their board list — do you know someone on their board or know someone who does? Do they want a letter of inquiry first? Many larger funders now have online applications, so familiarize yourself with their grant request format and make note of their deadlines.

Now, what to do when you see this brick wall: “We do not accept unsolicited requests.” This is where you have a couple of options.

  1. Call and talk to a program officer, which is not as easy as it sounds, as they are a) very busy and b) have gatekeepers to screen inquiries.
  2. Make friends with a receptionist or an assistant. Talk to them like they are the program officer, tell them why you think your program is a good fit, and ask if they have any suggestions. This won’t always work, but it’s worth a try.
  3. Contact one or more of their grantees and ask how they got a grant.
  4. One of your board members also may know someone on the foundation staff or board.

When researching potential funders, broaden your thinking. There are a lot of funders who give to organizations working on the issues you cover, but not to journalism as a means to bring about public awareness and solutions. A great pamphlet from the Knight Foundation, written by Eric Newton and Michele McLellan, gives non-journalism funders a number of reasons why they should consider supporting journalism. It contains valuable language to paraphrase when writing your proposal or discussing your organization with program officers. The Knight Foundation has a wealth of publications relating to journalism fundraising, so take a few minutes and scroll through their offerings.