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Practical tips for successful foundation grant proposals

A foundation is a nonprofit organization that makes grants to other nonprofits. Here's what you need to know about finding and applying for foundation grants.

What are the different types of foundation grants?

Primary types of foundation grants include:

  • Project grants. These one-time, focused grants are given for specific ventures. The United Way, for example, might give community project grants to build a playground, clean up a lot, or construct a wheelchair entrance for a public building.
  • Capacity-building grants. Capacity-building grants help established nonprofits expand the scope of their work, such as extending the range of services or increasing fundraising efforts.
  • Operating grants. Operating grants help cover the expenses of the day-to-day running of an organization. Small family foundations may be more likely than big foundations to offer operating grants to community partner organizations.
  • Research grants. Research grants are project grants that fund academic research, often in the sciences and social sciences. Research grants pay salaries, travel expenses, lab fees and other costs associated with scientific work.

Who receives foundation grants?

Generally, foundation grants help nonprofits build capacity and scale, complete specific projects, or expand successful initiatives. These grants tend to support nonprofits whose work benefits the shared community. Since foundation grants typically require a record of successful outcomes, nonprofit startups are effectively excluded.

One key to getting foundation grants, particularly those that are community-centered, is to have a relationship with the foundation making the grant. According to GuideStar, roughly three-fourths of family foundations do not accept unsolicited proposals, so the first step in getting a foundation grant might be building a connection with the foundation — not filling out an application.

What are some ways to find foundation grants?

Search out community and family foundations in your area. Research their grantmaking priorities and the projects they've funded in the past. Foundation directories are available online through groups such as the Foundation Center. You'll also want to monitor request for proposal (RFP) announcements from local foundations.

What does the grant application process involve?

Applying for larger foundation grants often entails an extensive application process. In contrast, a small family foundation might not require a substantial application at all. They might not even accept proposals or inquiries. Instead, small family foundations tend to rely more on relationships. A small foundation might want to develop a partnership over months or years before actually granting any money. After a partnership has been established, the foundation might expect simply a short letter or informal proposal, rather than a lengthy application.

What are some tips for successful foundation grant proposals?

If you're considering applying for a foundation grant:

Be selective

Look for grants to expand and extend capacity, to complete specific projects and, if available, to support day-to-day operations. Don't expect foundation grants to help you start a nonprofit or provide long-term sources of income. Similarly, don't apply for foundation grants unless you have a demonstrated record of outcomes in the specific area of grant support.

The Children's Museum of Fon du Lac, Wisc., received a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council to add new museum programming on the history and culture of the lake sturgeon. Although focused on fish, this capacity-building grant added new opportunities for community involvement, specifically facilitating interactions between community elders and youth.

Consider foundations as partners

While foundations are grantmaking organizations, they are themselves mission-driven. Foundations of any size should be treated as collaborators before and after grants are awarded. Actively cultivate relationships with foundations in the community, even those that are not currently taking grant applications. Tap into the relationships and networks of board members and staff — making sure they have a clear role in articulating your nonprofit's mission and goals to potential funding partners.

Think locally

Focus on community and family foundations in your area.

In Denver, Colo., a grant to help low-income housing residents — who experienced disproportionate rates of cardiovascular disease — initiated on-site health screenings, an exercise program and targeted outreach, offering clear social and fiscal benefits to all Denver residents.

The Dyson Foundation makes grants of all sizes to nonprofits in the Hudson Valley area of New York. The Alzheimer's Association of Poughkeepsie receives operating funding, while the Barrett Art Center received a project grant for improving a building. Dyson supports its priority — improving the quality of life for Hudson Valley residents — in small and large ways, but it has strong connections to the nonprofits it funds.

Be realistic

Familiarize yourself with the foundation's giving history, including typical grant size. A research grant or grant that comes from a large foundation might take months from RFP to distribution of funds. Have a plan for sustainability in the meantime.

Don't be discouraged by rejection

Don't be discouraged if your first, or even second, grant application is rejected. Use each application, even if it's not successful, as an opportunity to learn more about the foundation and to show the foundation more about your nonprofit.



MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.



GuideStar: Applying for funding from family foundations: Results of a new survey by Page Snow (2009)

The Balance: 6 realities of foundation grants for nonprofits by Joanne Fritz (2015)

Nonprofit Hub: The one secret to winning foundation grants by Pamela Grow

Stanford Social Innovation Review: Better relationships, better results by J. McCray (2014)

GrantSpace: What is a foundation?



Baltimore-based writer and educator