Lesson 3: Research


Now that you have a funding plan, you can use it to begin research for potential funding partners. Your plan will provide guidance on the research process, including subject areas, types of support, and geographic location. Additionally, you can use your plan to develop keywords for searching for potential funders.


Take a look at your plan and pull out some keywords to use for your research. Nouns make good keywords. Consider your subject area, population served, geographic location, and the purpose of the funding. For example, using the sample funding plans from Lesson 2, here are some potential keywords:

  • Individual – Conference Travel & Presentation
  • Art history
  • Art preservation
  • Pre-17th Century
  • Thesis development
  • Professional development
  • Travel
  • Conference
  • Academic Department
  • Nonprofit Organization

All of these sample keywords address many aspects funders are looking for, including general subject area and funding type. The next step will be to use these keywords to search for potential funders by looking for common interests.

Research Common Interests

In order to find a good potential funder, you need to find a good ‘fit’ or match your interests with theirs. In other words, you or your organization’s mission should be compatible with the mission and vision of the potential funder. You are more likely to receive funding if you are a good match with the funder, which is indicated by what you have in common. As mentioned earlier, three areas to consider are subject area, geographic location, and type of support needed. Keep in mind that you will rarely find a perfect fit with a funder, so do your best to find the most overlap between your needs and their interests. You can learn more about the interests of potential funders through a variety of print and electronic resources.

Where to Search

Unfortunately, there is no one place to find information about every potential funder. However, the Grants Information Collection located in Memorial Library at UW-Madison has a variety of both print and electronic resources you can use to aid in your search. Some databases are only accessible in Memorial Library. If you are not located in the Madison, WI area, you can visit Candid Learning to find another Funding Information Network partner near you. Let’s explore a couple of the resources available in the Grants Information Collection.

Grants Information Collection: print, non-circulating

This is a collection of print directories, handbooks, guides, and other materials that are available for use within Memorial Library. The print directories can be subject-specific, specific to a population, or general, and can be used to search for potential funders. They contain large lists of funders organized by subject, geographic location, and type of support. Each list entry includes information about the funder, including contact information, and may also include past funded projects and deadlines, and application information.

In addition to directories, there are books on nonprofit management, proposal writing, and what to do after receiving a grant. Many of these can be used for individual and nonprofit groups alike. The Grants Information Collection also has handouts from past workshops as well as information on how to use specific databases.

Book lists:

Note about print materials:

Not all print directories have recent editions. Some are no longer updated. However, print directories can still be a useful tool to identify potential funders, especially for grant seekers who prefer using print materials. Just be sure to see if the funder has a website or is in a grants database to get a sense of their more recent funding patterns. In addition, the general concepts presented in most nonprofit management books, proposal writing books, and the like, are still viable.


PIVOT is an online database that contains both private and public funding sources, and is a great place to start for non-profits and especially individuals seeking funding. This is a nice “catch all” database and covers all subject areas. Within PIVOT, you can create customized searches to identify yourself as a member of a racial or ethnic minority group, LGBTQ+, a person with disabilities, and/or as a woman. In addition, you can identify your country of citizenship to ensure the results only contain funding opportunities for which you are eligible. Organizations can identify as a nonprofit or an academic institution.

UW-Madison affiliates may create an account with PIVOT to use outside of the Grants Information Collection space. Please note that you must have a current UW-Madison email address to create an account. With an account, you can save searches, create email alerts, and put funding opportunities on tracked lists. As an additional benefit, PIVOT also offers the option to view potential collaborators at UW-Madison. PIVOT may not be available at all Funding Information Network locations but does tend to be available at large research institutions.

PIVOT related links:

Foundation Directory Online – Memorial Library only

Foundation Directory Online is the flagship database from Candid and contains a wealth of information on foundation funders, as well as some information on governmental funders. This is an essential database for nonprofit organizations, including UW-Madison departments. All Funding Information Network locations will provide access to this database. It provides information and funding history for 242,000+ foundations, corporations, and federal agencies. Foundation Directory Online has a very friendly interface with a single search bar to enter your organization’s mission or a short phrase describing your funding needs in order to match with funders in the directory. There are multiple ways to save search results, including individual funder profiles, funder lists, and past recipients.

Foundation Directory Online related links:

Foundation Grants to Individuals – Memorial Library only

Most foundations are only able to give directly to nonprofit organizations. Some are able to give directly to individuals, and the Foundation Grants to Individuals database only includes those foundations. It works in the same manner as the Foundation Directory Online (described above) with similar features and search tools. Use this database if you are an individual seeking funding and would like to expand your search beyond PIVOT. Because Foundation Grants to Individuals does not always contain the same depth of information about individual funders, it can be helpful to cross reference a funder in the Foundation Directory Online as well.

Foundation Grants to Individuals related links:

As you hone in on potential funders, be sure to check their funding track records (strategies discussed below) to ensure compatibility.

Where to Search

In addition to finding potential funding matches, you should also vet these organizations. Funders will often advertise their mission and vision. It is helpful to research whether their actions reflect these stated values: Who have they funded in the past? How often? Have they funded organizations or projects similar to your own in the past? Have they provided the type of support that you need? Have they funded in your geographic area?

Geographic area, and sometimes funding type, are common areas where funders may stray from what they say they do or do not fund. For example, a funder may say they primarily fund in a particular region or county, but when reviewing past awarded grants, a much wider geographic region is represented. For this reason, it is important to review the ‘track record’ of past grants awarded in order to consider your fit with this funder.

For foundations, you may find track records in their tax records, specifically IRS document 990. This is especially true for private foundations. Foundation Directory Online is built on 990 data from 2002 to the present. You can download these records from the database. If you do not have access to Foundation Directory Online, there is a free edition (registration required) available through Candid that provides access to the prior three years of tax forms. This is also available through GuideStar Search (limited number of free views) and 990 Finder.

For governmental funders, look at the funding agency’s website and any annual reports. These provide information on past funded projects and how their grant dollars were distributed. If you cannot find an annual report, try searching for the agency on USASpending.gov.

As you are vetting potential funders, you may find discrepancies between what they say they fund and what they actually fund. Make note of these discrepancies–they are great questions to ask as you communicate with and begin to form relationships with potential funders.

Communication with Funder

Grant-seeking is very competitive and requires a lot of networking. Building a relationship with a potential funder is a great way to get on their radar and elevate your application. Make a note of any questions you have throughout your search process, as well as any points of clarification you may need. As you are doing research, you will find that most funders will have a contact person or method. Use their point of contact to begin building a relationship if you do not already have an established communication channel with this organization.

A good practice when building a relationship is to either meet in person or over the phone. This face-to-face or voice-to-voice contact can support a deeper relationship and can provide for additional networking opportunities. However, using email to initiate this first encounter can be a good first step. Cold-calls may come at an inopportune time and make it difficult to provide more context (e.g. attaching the potential funding plan).

If you are unable to set up a meeting or the funder does not allow contact with potential grant recipients, check to see if they have online profiles, such as on LinkedIn or other social media platforms. Review this Candid Learning article to learn more about how and why to approach funders and what to do if they do not accept applications.

Now that you have a list of potential funders, it’s time to write your proposal.