Last Updated:

April 11, 2023

How to Do Effective Grant Prospect Research

How to Do Effective Grant Prospect Research

Whether you are new to writing grants or have years of experience, it is important to understand how to do effective grant prospect research.

In this article, we will help you learn how to find quality prospects so that you can maximize your writing efforts and increase your rate of success.

Continue reading to learn some great tips and tricks for how to research grants.

What to Prepare Before You Start Your Grant Prospect Research

The key to conducting effective grant prospect research is being prepared. Before you begin your research into potential funders, you must understand the funding needs of your organization. In most cases, you will be seeking funds to support certain projects. We have outlined a few key steps that will help you prepare for your prospect research.

1. Talk Over Your Strategic Goals for the Next 12-24 Months

The best way to understand your organization’s needs is to meet with your staff and talk over your strategic goals for the next 12-24 months.

Your projects will be a part of these strategic goals, but understanding the bigger picture can help you align your organization with the best funding partners.

Having a good understanding of your larger goals will help you identify prospects that align well with the impact you are trying to achieve.

2. Define Your Project

Before beginning research, you need to make sure to fully define your project and understand the work you are hoping to achieve, the audience you will serve, and the amount of funding required to complete the work.

You also need to lay out a timeline for the overall project as you will want to apply for funding well in advance of when you intend for the project to begin.

Having a clear idea of the work you are seeking funding for will help you focus and be more effective in your prospect research efforts. You will be able to use the type of work, audience, project budget, and other project details to narrow down your prospect list.

3. Gather Organization Documents

Another great way to prepare for grant prospect research is to gather all of your organization’s documents such as proof of nonprofit status, articles of incorporation, board meeting minutes, tax documents, etc. Most funders will request that these documents be uploaded or included with your grant application. By having these things readily available in one place, you will be able to determine whether you can meet all requirements of a specific funder.

Once you have identified your strategic goals, defined your project, and gathered organizational documents, you will be able to identify the best potential funders. You can analyze which prospects align with your strategic goals, who may provide enough funding to support the defined project, who funds work in your geographic area, and who typically supports assistance for your particular audience. The planning you have completed will help you be more effective in your grant prospect research.

How to Identify Funding Prospects?‍

Evaluate Existing Contacts

One great way to begin identifying funding prospects is to learn about relationships that your organization and your contacts may already have. Many organizations have board members, volunteers, or private donors who have connections within their community. Reach out to these contacts and have them provide a list of their own contacts. These connections could include local businesses, larger corporations, or even foundations. Research these contacts to see if they may be interested in funding your work.


Once you have reviewed your current list of contacts, you can also expand your list through networking. Grant writing conferences can be one place to broaden your network as funders often attend to teach sessions or network with organizations.

Before applying, you can also research who similar organizations receive funding from. Many organizations list funders on their websites and you can also research their 990s just as you would for private foundations.

Local or regional nonprofit associations can also be a good resource as they often help to compile information on various funders or provide training opportunities relating to grant research and writing.

Review Current and Past Funders (Including Rejected Applications)

One set of contacts that is sometimes overlooked is current and past funders. Knowing who has previously funded your work or even who has rejected a past application helps you determine if any of these same funders may be worthwhile prospects. While some funders will want to continue funding organizations they have previously worked with and a previous relationship can be a good start, other funders prefer to continually seek new opportunities.

If you have previously been rejected by a certain funder, you still learned from that process and can use what you now know to submit a more competitive application. Even though they rejected your application, that did begin a relationship that may help you stand out amongst the others.

Utilize a Grant Database or Search Tool

Instrumentl is a great tool as it brings together grant discovery, research, and tracking all in one place. Once you create an account, you can set up a project which allows you to keep a saved grant search, while also tracking every grant opportunity related to that project in the same place.

Instrumentl will search through its database to find opportunities that align well with your fundraising needs. These are then output into a Matches tab, where you’ll be able to dig deeper and learn about each potential funder to create your list of top grant prospects.

In the case where you want to look up a funder, you can do so using the Quick Find feature to easily research about past funder patterns.

For example, in the example below, 23% of grants over the last three years have gone to new grantees. Knowing more about a funder’s past funding history makes it easier for you to quickly ascertain whether or not a funder is worth investing time in applying for.

Click to find the best grants for your nonprofit from active opportunities.

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How to Research Your Top Grant Prospects‍

Once you have identified a list of potential prospects, you will want to narrow it down to your top prospects so that you can focus on your grant writing efforts.

The best way to narrow down your list is to dig deeper into each potential funder so you can understand what types of work and organizations they typically fund. Your research will also help you learn the requirements of each funder. Below we have provided a few key resources that can help you uncover this detailed information.

1. Funder Website

One great place to learn about the funder is through their website. The website will describe their goals and priorities as well as provide information on the application process. The funder website is also where you are likely to find contact information so that you can reach out to someone before submitting an application.

Here is an example of one website for Wells Fargo Corporate Giving so you can see the types of information that they provide. You can evaluate the priorities of the funder, such as economic empowerment, and determine if your work is likely to be funded.

You may also be able to find information about current and/or past work that they have funded. By looking for similarities between their funded work and your project, you can gain insight into whether or not your organization is a good fit.

Some funders will also have specific application documents or sample applications available on their website. Being able to review the application documents during your prospect research will help you understand how much time you may need to complete the application.

If you are interested in how to apply for research grants, then the funder website may be a good resource for research grant proposal templates. If there is not an actual template provided, then you may at least be able to see their specific application requirements including layout, formatting, etc.

2. 3rd-Party Information Online

Once you have found out who they have funded or are currently funding, you can research these organizations themselves. By reviewing the websites of these other organizations, you may be able to learn about their experience with the particular funder. Although internet research alone may provide what you need, reaching out to a contact at a previously funded organization is also a great way to learn more.

A relationship within the previously funded organization allows you to ask questions that may not be available through the funder website or other third-party information. You may be able to gain insight on whether organizations applied multiple times before being funded, what the reporting is like for a particular funder, and how easy (or hard) your contact felt that the funder was to work with.

Information from a direct source will help you determine if the funder is truly a worthwhile partner and whether or not your organization has the capacity for all aspects of the funding process.

3. Government Info

Another great way to learn about the funder is to research their tax returns. Private foundations are nonprofits just like your organization and therefore tax information is publicly available. If you are seeking funding from another type of funder, this information may be harder to find, but prospect research tools like Instrumentl can help.

The tax documents will help you learn about who the funder has provided grants to and also understand their overall budget. If there are no organizations similar to yours that have previously been funded, then you will know that this is not a worthwhile prospect.

Here is an example of the 990 snapshot that Instrumentl provides:

If you need help navigating what’s important and what’s not in a 990 report in evaluating a good fit funder, check out the Ultimate Go vs. No Go Grant RFP Evaluation tool workbook here.

4. Nonprofit Councils

One great resource for all things nonprofit is your local, regional, or statewide nonprofit council or association. Your organization should be a member of this type of association, but there is often information that you can find without a membership as well. These associations or councils can provide information such as contacts and descriptions of potential funders. They may even categorize the potential funders based on the types of work that they typically support. If the funder is a nonprofit themselves then they may be a member of the council and you can link to information about them that way.

Nonprofit groups and associations also often host foundation or funder information sessions where you can hear directly from funders about their priorities, application process, and more. These types of sessions will be very helpful as you may learn about foundations and funders that you had never heard of as well as find out details about the expectations of the grantmakers.

Grant Prospect Research FAQ

Now that we have provided some steps and tips on how to do effective grant prospect research, we would like to share answers to a few frequently asked questions.

1. How do you search for available grants?

While you can begin your grant writing research simply through the internet, prospect research tools like Instrumentl can be a great help. These types of software programs and databases compile information on many funders and can help you more easily find the information you are looking for.

Instrumentl, in particular, allows you to input a specific project and will then match that project with potential funders. You will have access to information about the funders which will help you be more effective in your grant prospect research.

Once you have a list of potential funders, you can dig deeper to determine the best fits and help streamline your grant writing efforts.

If you’re assessing what grant prospecting tools may be best for you, you may find the following pages helpful:

What you’ll quickly find is that Instrumentl is the only platform that brings grant prospecting, tracking, and management to one place.

2. How do you track your grants?

Different organizations and grant writers track grants in different ways, but grant tracking software can be very helpful. If you are a smaller organization and do not manage that many grants at one time, then spreadsheets through programs such as Microsoft Excel or Google Docs may be enough.

However, tracking software such as Instrumentl can keep all grant information from applications, timelines, reporting, and more in one place for multiple funders. Instrumentl can provide these types of programs as well as reminders to keep you on track with all requirements. Below is a screenshot showing the tracking feature in Instrumentl.

Whether you use simple spreadsheets or a more advanced software option, you want to track the same information:

  • Funder name
  • Website
  • Interests of the funder
  • Potential giving capacity
  • RFP dates and due dates

Once you have received a grant, you will then begin tracking reporting dates, expenses, and any other information requested by the funder.

It is also important to track all grants that you have applied for, even if you were not awarded funding. This will help your organization understand your grant writing history as well as past experiences with funders. If you have staff turnover or if you are seeking future funding, you will know whether you should apply or reapply to a certain funder.

3. What types of grants should you prioritize pursuing?

When conducting grant writing research, it is important to determine how much funding you need and what types of funding you qualify for. Typically, funders providing larger grants have a more detailed application process and are more competitive. Government grants, especially at the federal level, tend to be very competitive and may not be the best fit for your organization.

Another type of grant that can be very competitive is a research grant. If you’re seeking insights on how to apply for research grants, we recommend looking for information on those who have previously received funding. Many funders that provide research grants will have research grant proposal templates available.

You can also prioritize applying to funders with whom you already have a relationship. Whether this is a relationship that included previous funding, a rejection, or just a mutual contact such as a board member, your application will stand out because of your name being recognized.

Determining which types of grants you should apply for will require analyzing your organization’s needs compared to your prospect research. You also want to make sure you utilize the resources of your organization well including staff time.

If you have done effective grant prospect research, then you will have a list of potential funders that you know are interested in your work and/or have funded similar organizations in the past. You will also understand all expectations of the potential funders so that you can make sure your organization meets all eligibility requirements. By focusing your efforts on these funders you can complete well-written, competitive applications.

4. What features should you care about in a prospect research tool?

To make sure that you can do effective grant prospect research, you want to use a tool that can provide details on possible funding sources. Your tool should help you:

  • Find contacts at the funder
  • Investigate previous grantees through 990s or other documents
  • Discover funders whose missions align with your organization and your work
  • Use multiple search options such as keyword, location, or funder name
  • Gain easy access to additional details through linking

It is also helpful to have grant prospect research and grant management in one database which is a great feature that Instrumentl can provide.

5. What are some common mistakes in grant prospect research?

It is easy to make mistakes when researching grant prospects, especially if you are just learning how to do effective grant prospect research. We are pointing out a few of the most common mistakes here to help keep you on track in your grant research and writing efforts.

Not Being Prepared

The most common mistake that grant researchers and writers make is not being prepared. As mentioned earlier in this article, you have to understand your needs before beginning your prospect research process. If you do not know what you are seeking funding for and how much funding you need, it will be very difficult to properly identify potential funders.

It is also important to begin this planning well ahead of when you need funding as it can take 6-9 months or more from applying to receive funding. You have to make sure you understand the funder rules and requirements because while some funders will reimburse expenses incurred before receiving grant funding, many will not. You do not want to end up spending funds that you will not get back, so you should wait to start the project until you have funds in hand.

Not Spending Enough Time on Research

Another common mistake is not putting enough time into your research. Doing effective grant prospect research includes digging into details about potential funders. You want to understand their goals and priorities to determine if they would be interested in partnering with your organization.

You also need to know what types of work and organizations they have previously funded as this will help you see if your organization is a good fit.

Not Verifying Whether the Funder Is Accepting New Applications

You may also make the mistake of not verifying whether the funder is accepting new applications. Some funders only work with previously funded organizations and many private foundations and some corporate foundations are currently working on an invitation-only basis.

Make sure that you closely review the website of the funder to find out their application process.

Wrapping Things Up: How to Move Forward with your Prospect Research

Now that we have broken down the process of how to do effective grant prospect research, we hope you feel better prepared to research and write grants. The most important things to keep in mind are planning and analyzing your current contacts.

If you know what you need funding for and how much funding you are seeking, then you are well on your way to identifying solid grant prospects. By following our process of prospect identification and research, you can create a list of top funders and help streamline your grant research and writing process. We do still want you to keep in mind that effective prospect research takes time and you need to do it well to identify quality opportunities.

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