How to Get to Know a Funder BEFORE Grant Writing + Workbook

Take a minute to think about the relationship you have with your best friend (whether it be your spouse, a family member, or someone else).

You probably know what jokes make them laugh. You know what kind of clothes they like, and whether they would pick Mexican food or Italian. You also probably know if you are more likely to get ahold of them if you text them, call them, or just show up on their porch. And, you probably don’t send them 100 texts a day if you know they would prefer to be called, or you don’t buy them a pink shirt if you know that is their least favorite color.

This is how you should look at a potential funder.

You want to know what things they look for in a grant application. Do they like humor? Do they like certain types of data, whether it be stories, academic research, or news articles? What is their personality? Are they super formal, or are they more personable?

You might be asking yourself, okay, that sounds fine on paper, but how do we ACTUALLY get to know a funder like we get to know our best friend? And, specifically, what are we looking for that would help us write a grant and get funded?

In this article we are going to discuss just that.

We will discuss:

  • How to get to know a funder through personal interactions as well as through other sources (their 990s, website, etc.)
  • What kind of information to look for
  • How you can use what you learn to your advantage in writing a grant application


First up, how to get to know a funder.

How to Get to Know a Funder

There are two types of interactions with a funder that I want to discuss: personal interactions and online interactions.

Number 1: Personal Interactions

Sometimes nonprofit organizations think of foundations and grant makers like I might think of outer space. It’s something I can see in the sky (or on the internet), but I can’t touch it, and I sure don’t want to make contact with it or anything that might be out there (haha that might be a bit of a stretch, but you get the point). People think of funders as someone to just fill out a grant application for and send it in. But what we forget is that there are real, live people reading those grant applications. And those people have interests, tastes, and personalities.

Why don’t we spend some time getting to know these people before we send them a grant application?

Here are some ways that you can get to know a potential funder through personal interactions:

  • Take them out to lunch
  • Set up a meeting at their office
  • Give them a call
  • Invite them to one of your organizations’ events

One of the Executive Directors of a nonprofit that I love and worked for in college had worked as a professional fundraiser for years before taking her position as Executive Director for this organization. She talked about how she had to get comfortable in that job going and asking millionaires to give “her” (the organization she worked for) thousands of dollars. She spent years taking these high ranking individuals out to lunch, asking them about their family, and truly become friends with them.

And was she successful?


What made her successful?

In talking to his woman, here are 4 reasons that she was as successful at fundraising as she was:

  1. She was confident with herself and in her organization and cause. She raised money for worldwide philanthropy and was extremely passionate about the cause. Therefore, she was excited to go to others and invite them to join the ranks by donating money.
  2. She was personable. Being able to have a conversation, a real conversation was critical to her success. We are talking about a 20-35 year old woman going and talking with 65-85 year-old millionaires. She HAD to know how to talk and how to have a conversation with people who were completely different from her.
  3. Her interactions didn’t begin right before seeking money. She really developed relationships with these people before ever asking them for a penny.
  4. Her interactions didn’t end after receiving donations. She cultivated longterm relationships over years (which led to repeat donors).

Number 2: Online Interactions

The second way to get to know a potential funder is through online interactions.

There are a number of ways to get to know a funder online:

  • Through their website
  • Through their 990s
  • Through the websites of those who they funded
  • Emailing/contacting the potential funder
  • Emailing those who they previously funded
  • Getting to know other aspects of their foundation such as if they have a for-profit side, etc.

Now, I want to take you through some of the ways to get to know a funder online. We are going to get to know Google Foundation through their website, 990, and the websites of those who they have funded.

First, lets take a look at Google Foundation’s website (

We can find out a number of things from Google Foundation’s website including their funding priorities, their personality (how they present themselves online), etc.

For instance, let’s take a look at the pictures on their website. They generally have the focus of their pictures as people. Do you think they care more about helping people or helping with land renovation? I would guess, just by their pictures, that they care about helping people.

Next, lets take a look at Google Foundation’s 990s forms.

Here is Google Foundation’s 990 from 2014: Google Foundation 990 2014


There are a few things that will really help us on a 990.


Step 1: Total Giving Amount

First of all, lets see how much money Google Foundation gave in grants in 2014. On the first page of the 990 I’ve highlighted the amount of money that Google Foundation gave away in grants: $21,159,894.

While that is good information, it doesn’t mean much until we understand how much they gave in individual grants. Sure, they gave $21,159,894 in 2014, but was that to one organization or 500?

Step 2: Number of Grants Awarded

If we were going to apply for a grant from Google Foundation, we want to know the range of how much money we might receive from a single grant application. This brings us down to Statement 9, where Google Foundation listed all of their contributions and grants.

In 2014, Google Foundations awarded 18 grants (compare that to YUM Brands Foundation that awarded over 600 grants in 2015 and gave away $3,541,523).

Why is this information valuable for your organization?

Two things.

First of all, if you see that a foundation only awards a few grants over the course of a year, you know that there is more potential for competition. On the other hand, a small foundation that only awards two grants might only receive a dozen applications, so it really depends on the foundation that you are applying to (GET TO KNOW THE FUNDER!). In the case of Google Foundation, it is pretty safe to say that there is a LOT of competition for these grants. So, out of thousands of applications that they received, only 18 were awarded.

Secondly, if a large foundation only offers a few grant applications (like Google Foundation), you are looking at much larger grants than a large foundation that offers hundreds of grants. Furthermore, a small foundation that offers a lot of grants will be offering even smaller amounts of money.

So, in the case of Google Foundation, we know that there is a lower chance of being awarded, but the tradeoff is that if we were funded, we would be receiving a handsome amount of money.

Step 3: Amount of Funding Awarded

We have looked at the total amount of money that was awarded and the amount of grants that were awarded. Let’s now take a look at the range of the awards and the amount of each award.

It looks like the smallest grant that was awarded in 2014 was $100,000. It was a program/general operating grant, and it was to Trek Medics, which is located in New York City.

Additionally, it looks like the 3 largest grants awarded were all $2,500,000. One grant was awarded to the International Rescue Committee in San Jose, California, another was given to Partners in Health in Boston, and the third was given to Save the Children in Fairfield, Connecticut.

Therefore, the range of awarded grants are: $100,000-$2,500,000.

Additionally, the average amount of grant money awarded was $1,175,549.

What do these two numbers tell us?

They tell us approximately what your asking price should be. Since we know that Google Foundations didn’t fund any program smaller than $100,000, then we probably wouldn’t ask them for $1,500. Additionally, we probably wouldn’t ask them for $5,000,000 since we haven’t seen another organization awarded with that amount of money.

This is the same case with other foundations. You will want to figure out the range of the awards that they typically offer, and ask them for a grant award that is similar to those numbers.

Step 4: Types of Organizations Awarded

Take a look at the organizations on the funded list.

What do you notice about where these organizations are located?

What do you notice about the types of organizations that were funded?

First of all, the organizations are not all located in California, where the Google headquarters are located. This is important to notice because a lot of smaller foundations will only fund organizations around where they are located. Also, the organizations are not all located in a particular state, but are spread out throughout the United States (with more organizations from NYC being funded, possibly because there are a lot of large organizations in NYC).

Furthermore, the organizations do not all have a similar mission. Their missions are spread across the board.

Why does this information matter?

We now know that Google Foundation is just as likely to fund an organization in California as they are to fund an organization in New York. So, there is no geographic bias. We also know that an art foundation is just as likely to be funded as a medical organization. Therefore, we know that Google Foundation is willing to fund a variety of causes.

Let’s dig even deeper into these organizations

Here are 2 organizations that I randomly chose from the list:

  1. Save the Children (received $2,500,000)
  2. Code for America (received $1,000,000)

We are going to go through these two organizations’ websites and find:

  1. Their Mission Statement
  2. Their projects
  3. Where they are located

Then, using this information, we are going to see if we can understand why they were funded by Google Foundations.


Organization 1: Save the Children (awarded: $2,500,000)

Mission Statement: “Save the Children invests in childhood – every day, in times of crisis and for our future. In the United States and around the world, we give children a healthy start, the opportunity to learn and protection from harm. By transforming children’s lives now, we change the course of their future and ours.”



Emergency Response

Health and Nutrition


Hunger and Livelihoods

Newborn and Child Survival

Protecting Children

U.S. Disaster Response

Location: They are based in the United States, but work in other countries as well, including: Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Middle East and Eurasia.

Conclusion: I would conclude that Save the Children was awarded a grant based on Google’s Global Impact Awards.

The Global Impact Awards address issues all around the world, which is what Save the Children does.


Organization 2: Code for America (awarded: $1,000,000)

Mission Statement:

“We help government deliver services to the public better using the tools and practices of the digital age. And we organize a network of people dedicated to spreading these practices in government for the benefit of all Americans.

“Since 2011, we’ve worked with thousands of tech industry professionals to help 100+ local governments serve their communities better.  Now we’re working with government to make the most of our tax dollars to help millions of underserved Americans.”


  • Technology and Government

Location: United States (across the entire country)

Conclusion: There are a few grants that might have been offered to Code for America. They might have fallen into the same category as Save the Children, or they might have received a Google Impact Challenge Grant.

This kind of analysis is something you can do with any potential funder. You can do it just like we have done it here.

First, find a handful of organizations that were funded by the foundation in the past couple of years.

Secondly, look up those organizations and find out where they are located, what their mission is, and what they do.

Then see if you can draw any connections between them and the foundation.

This will give you an idea of whether or not your organization is likely to be funded. We just looked at two completely different organizations, but each of them are large. This might tell us that Google tends to fund large nonprofits that have a track record (but, I did see a grassroots grant on their website too, so keep your eyes open!). Also, one of these organizations focused on global issues while the other one wanted to streamline government processes for the people here in the United States. Those are VERY different missions, so I wouldn’t say that your organization won’t be funded based on a certain cause. I would say that you should really look into the details of each grant application offered by Google and heed their specific requirements.


We have now spent some time getting to know the funder, and now it is time to put all of that information to use.


Based on the information you have learned, you now know some of the following information:

  • Does the funder have a sense of humor or would they rather your application be formal?
  • Does the funder like personal stories or statistics more?
  • What are some of the interests of the funder? Do they like seeing the biggest bang for their buck (showing them the facts and figures), or do they like seeing a life changed (a particular story)
  • Do they have a formal grant application for you to fill out, or do they leave it open to your imagination? (by the way, I would ALWAYS recommend asking a funder EXACTLY what they want in a grant application. Don’t just guess.)

Here are a couple of stories to illustrate the importance of getting to know a funder.

Story #1: Environmental Paper Wasters

One time there was an organization that worked to save the environment. They were concerned with land conservation and protecting animal habitats. One year they came across a foundation that looked like a match made in heaven. This foundation awarded grants to environmental organizations and seemed to really care about everything this organization cared about. They applied for the grant and anxiously waited for a response.

Well, one came, but it isn’t what they wanted to hear:


Their grant was denied! How could that be?!

They decided to reach out to the foundation and you’ll never believe what the foundation said.

The foundation said that their grant application was great. They agree with their cause and were excited about what this organization was doing. There was a problem with their application though… the foundation said, how can your organization profess to care about the environment when you double spaced your entire application and didn’t even print on the back side of the paper?!

That’s right. This foundation didn’t fund this environmental organization because they wasted paper on their grant application.

Story #2: Signed by Paw

One animal shelter really took the time to get to know a funder they were interested in. They did their research and learned that this funder REALLY loved their dogs, and had a sense of humor.

So, what did they do?

They wrote their entire grant application from the point of view of a dog. I believe they even purposely put in typos and snippets into the dogs personal desires such as wanting a bone or a nice juicy steak. What’s more? At the end of the grant application it asked for the signature of the grant writer and they signed it with a paw print.

Were they awarded?


It really does pay off to get to know your funders!


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