top of page

What Small Nonprofits Need to Know About Applying for Grants


volunteers at donation site

Some nonprofits are funded almost entirely by individual donations. Learning how to apply for -- and get -- grant funding can empower your organization to make long-range plans for a stable presence in your community, grant funding can keep your charitable organization going when your community hits hard times, and it can also help you grow your presence with the people you serve.



In some ways, applying for grants is a lot easier than seeking donations from individuals. Foundations that make grants to nonprofits like yours will tell you upfront what they fund and what they do not. They will give you a form for making your request, and they will tell you the information they need to see on it. Imagine if individual donors made things clear like that!


If you are just dipping your toes into the grant waters for the first time, this article will make the process of applying for and receiving a grant clearer for you. And if your organization already depends on grant funding, this article will help you find new sources of funding to make sure you have the income you need to do your good work.


How Do You Getting Started Looking for Sources of Funding?


Let's start with the basic question facing small organizations applying for grants: Where do you find the foundations that will consider funding a nonprofit like yours?


You can start by looking at the annual reports of peer organizations like your own. Their annual reports will list their sources of funding and the amounts they received.


It's also a good idea to look up basic information on the foundations that give out grants like those you seek. There are books that list foundation information, but you can find more information and more current foundation information.


Guidestar.org, available by subscription, maintains a huge database of financial information on thousands of charitable organizations. ProPublica, which has more information for free, has copies of IRS Form 990 filings for nonprofits with revenues ranging from a few thousand dollars a year to billions of dollars a year.


Going Beyond the Information You Can Get from the Internet


business woman on the phone at her computer

These websites can tell you where organizations like yours get their funding. They can tell you how much nonprofits pay their officers and how much they spend directly on their mission. They can tell you which organizations major foundations fund and how much they contribute.


Of course, you can usually get all that information and more just by contacting the grants managers at the foundations to which you are considering submitting a grant proposal.


Do your research first. Don't ask a busy grants manager any questions for which you could find answers online. But don't hesitate to ask:

  • Do you regularly make grants to organizations like (fill in the blank)? If your nonprofit is a library, for instance, and the foundation doesn't fund libraries, you need to know that. Sometimes foundations have restrictions on the kinds of nonprofits they can fund. And it's always a good idea to ask the grants manager directly if your organization would be a good fit for their goals.

  • Do you give unrestricted gifts, or, put another way, do you fund operational expenses? Some foundations only fund specific kinds of expenses, while others will allow organizations they have screened to spend money as needed.

  • How big is your average grant? Unless you offer a service the grant-making foundation finds extremely compelling, it's usually a good idea to ask for no more than the average grant the first time you apply.

  • What do you look for in grant proposals? Grants managers can steer you toward a successful grant request by giving you insight into the ways their foundations choose grant recipients.


The Most Important Rule for Contacting Funding Sources


Once you are ready to start putting your grant proposal together, remember this cardinal rule: Be yourself.


Don't pretend to be more diverse than you are, or smaller than you are, or larger than you are, hoping you will sway the foundation's decision. Pretending to be what you are not can cause permanent injury to your relationship with the grantmaking foundation from which your nonprofit will never recover.


When You Are Ready to Submit Your Proposal, Follow This Checklist


In the process of writing your grant proposal, you will also need to:


  • Give the chair of your board a heads-up. It's always good to let your board know you are hard at work, and the grant-making foundation may want to interview your chair as part of the application process.

  • Get someone to proofread your work. Spelling and grammatical errors hurt your chances of getting your grant. Even if you can't afford to hire a full-time (or part-time) grant proposal writer, hiring a professional for a few hours at this stage can make a huge difference in your chances of getting a grant.

  • Be specific about what you plan to use the money for. Even if the grant-making foundation makes "unrestricted" gifts, it is always best to be able to show them exactly how you will spend their grant.

  • Plan to hurry up and wait, and then hurry up again. Grant-making organizations don't get in a hurry to disperse money. But when they get around to making their decision on your grant, you need to have all the documents they require -- your 501(c)(3) certification from the IRS, for example -- ready to be submitted immediately.


Once You Have Completed This Process, Do It All Over Again