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How to search for funding opportunities for nonprofits - Instrumentl guide
How to search for funding opportunities for nonprofits - Instrumentl guide

This article helps 501c3 nonprofits find the best grants for the unique work they do. Last updated March 12, 2020.

Angela Braren avatar
Written by Angela Braren
Updated over a week ago


  1. Are you really ready for grants?

  2. Do a retrospective

  3. Generate creative approaches

  4. Use the most-effective tools

  5. Search for grants on Instrumentl

  6. Narrow your results

  7. Get ready to write

You might think that a well-written grant application can make or break your fundraise. You wouldn’t be wrong, but did you know that your highest leverage point in the grant-seeking process is actually in deciding which grants you’ll pursue? If you want to significantly increase your chance of success, we recommend investing time upfront in the grant search and vetting process.

We wrote this article to help you be more strategic earlier in your process and to fill a hole in high-quality, free “how to” articles about winning grants. Our team has been helping hundreds of nonprofits win grants for over five years. We’ve seen it all and these are some of our favorite strategies for success.

1. Are you really ready for grants?

Before you even type “nonprofit grants” into Google, ask yourself if you’re really “grant ready.” Being “grant ready” means your organization is ready to take on additional capital. If you can answer the questions in our blog post, “Are You Ready to Write Grants?” before you begin to write, you’ll save yourself a lot of time and you’ll look like a better candidate to prospective funders.

Being "grant ready," ensuring your nonprofit's financials are in order, and your impact is demonstrable is a big part of winning grant funding. Knowing how to find the right grant opportunities is the next.

2. Do a retrospective

You can generate many new ideas for how to search for grants just by looking at the grants you’ve won or lost in the past. A retrospective can shed light on your winning strategies. For example, you might find that in the past year all grants won came through a connection to a board member or maybe the majority of your grant funding came from family foundations where a member of the family was deeply involved in the cause area. 

A retrospective can also show you the strategies that didn’t work so well. For example, maybe you spent too much time pursing small grants and sponsorships from businesses resulting in a relatively low return on investment (ROI). 

Pro-tip: Don’t forget to ask your colleagues if any research on grants has already been done. You’d be surprised what a past Development Director may have left you on Google Drive and it could save you hours of work.

3. Generate creative approaches

When searching for grants, it pays to get creative. Before you begin actively searching, we recommend brainstorming a few creative angles from which to approach your projects and needs. 

For example, if I’m raising funds for park improvements I can approach my grant search from the traditional angle of looking for funding earmarked for “recreation” or “parks/public places.”

I can also approach it from the populations I’m serving, like seniors, middle schoolers or teenagers. Park improvements might also accomplish other goals like “environmental education” and even “public / community art”, “habitat restoration” or “farmland preservation” depending on the projects I deploy. 

As you’ll see later in the section “5. Search for grants on Instrumentl,” I’ll walk you through entering your “Fields of Work” into Instrumentl to yield different and promising search results.

4. Use the most-effective tools

You’ve made sure you’re grant ready. You brainstormed creative approaches to identifying funders who may be interested in your project and you double-checked to see what grant research has already been done by other members of your team (past or present). Now you’re ready to start searching!

The best way to search for grant opportunities is a combination of using the best tools and getting involved in your community.

In using the best tools you’ll take advantage of the advanced research and aggregation work already done by the teams who created the tools. By getting involved in your community you’ll open yourself up to the serendipity that comes from being in the same room as like-minded people working on your cause or interested in funding your cause.

To get involved in your local community try joining your local Grant Professionals Association (GPA) Chapter, join a local fundraising professionals group on Facebook, or check to see if any local foundations in your area are hosting upcoming events. Whether in person or online you’ll get a huge advantage by speaking with nonprofit professionals about their favorite funders and the strategies they took to make a connection.

If you can’t find any upcoming events, consider hosting your own events. Invite the right people and press to share in the great work you’re doing and to help you spread the word.

5. Search for grants on Instrumentl

This next section will walk you through how to use an advanced grant search tool, Instrumentl, to find the right upcoming public, private and corporate grants for your needs. 

Take advantage of Instrumentl’s 14-day free trial and free onboarding call with someone on their team. You can do significant grant research in 14 days and the free onboarding call will give you a chance to speak to an expert, get acquainted with the tool, and ask for tips.

Step 1 - Choose a creative approach

Pull up your list of creative “Field of Work” approaches which you generated earlier in this article. Select one or more of these approaches for your first Instrumentl search. Don’t worry if you have a long list, Instrumentl lets you create up to ten separate smart searches or “projects” on your free trial account.

Step 2 - Enter your project information into Instrumentl

Location of Organization

Instrumentl begins by asking you for the location of your organization. 

-- If you’re representing a 501c3 nonprofit, enter the location where your organization files your IRS form 990 (this can be different from where your project physically takes place or where the populations you serve reside).

-- If you’re an independent grant writer and you’re representing one nonprofit client in your Instrumentl account, simply enter where that organization files their IRS form 990.

Pro-tip: If you’re an independent grant writer and you’re representing more than one 501c3 in your Instrumentl account and they have different locations, select the specific counties (or states if counties don’t make sense) in which all of your clients are based.

Applicant Type

Instrumentl gives you 16 options for applicant type. If you’re a 501c3 then you’ll most-likely want to choose “Nonprofit” only. If you represent a museum, zoo, college or K-12, skip selecting “Nonprofit” and instead select the even more specific “Museum / Library / Zoo” or “College / University,” to avoid grants not earmarked for the unique organization you represent.

Location of Project

In this section you should enter the location(s) where your organization operates or your specific project takes place. This is usually where your work physically (or digitally) takes place or where the population you serve resides. You can select multiple locations, countries outside of the US, and indicate if your project or need is national in scope.

Pro-tip: Be as specific as possible with your Location of Project. Select county-level location(s) if possible. You’ll avoid the headache of weeding out dozens of funders who want to fund in your state but within different counties. 

Field of Work

Instrumentl’s  “Field of Work” functions like keywords. In the Field of Work section you can choose up to 10 terms that best match your project or mission. Each ‘Field of Work’ keyword represents a funder interest area. Like locations, try to be as specific as possible to avoid sifting through grants that aren’t a good fit. If you can’t find 10 relevant Fields of Work, don’t force it. It’s better to have fewer Fields of Work than ones that are misaligned.

Pro-tip: Instead of scrolling through the 300+ Fields of Work on Instrumentl, type in a word that relates to your project, for example if I type in the word “Education,” I’ll see Fields of Work like “Civic Engagement & Education,” “Adult Education,” and “Art Education” among others.

Size of Grants

Here is where you can put a restriction on the size of grant you’re interested in considering. If you’re a larger organization perhaps you don’t want to consider any grants under $10,000. But for most organizations we recommend leaving the range open to begin with so you can consider all options. You can always add a range in later if helpful, and you can sort your results by grant size.

What you’ll use the funds for

This is perhaps one of the highest leverage fields in the Instrumentl onboarding experience since it’ll greatly impact the kinds of grants you’re matched with. If you want to see grants that will cover capacity building or general operating needs make sure you have “General Operating Expense” or “Capacity Building” selected.

After you’ve entered all of your project information and clicked the final purple “Save and Exit” button, you’ll be presented with a list of upcoming public, private and corporate grants relevant to your needs.

Pro-tip: If you’re looking for general operating funds, don’t exclude funders who want to give restricted ‘project’ funding. It’s quite common for funders who want to give project funding to an organization before offering general operating funds in future years.

Step 3 - Review your results

Being presented with 100+ prospective grants can feel amazing but also a little overwhelming. Instrumentl has some great sorting and filtering options in place to help you zoom in even more on your target.

Check out the left-most filter which reads “Best Match.” This dropdown will sort your relevant grants by “Best Match” (the grants Instrumentl thinks are the best for you), “New” grants (those grants that have been added in the past week), by “Deadline” (soonest upcoming deadlines sorted chronologically), or by “Amount” (largest grants brought to the top of your list).

The second-from-the-left dropdown is a filter. Use this to filter the results by funding use or funder type.

Pro-tip: You can also narrow down your list by typing a term or location into the search bar to the right of the sort and filter options. For example, typing in “Los Angeles” into the search bar will bring up all of the matching grants with the word “Los Angeles” in them. This is especially helpful if your project takes place in a specific city. That said, keep in mind that a funder may give to organizations in Los Angeles but may not specifically mention this word in their grant description.

Step 4 - Saving grants

Save those grants that seem promising. Don’t worry if you’re not 100% sure if you’ll apply or not yet. Saving a grant moves it to your “Grant Tracker” Tab so you can keep track of it and its deadlines. Once you save a grant you’ll receive automatic deadline reminders which will prevent you from missing important due dates!

6. Narrow your results

Now that you have grants saved to your Tracker, dig even deeper by reviewing each grant’s “990 Report” to see who they’ve funded in the past, their median grant size, list of key people at the foundation, website and more. 

This can be a great way to compare what the foundation says they want to fund this cycle with those organizations they’ve funded in the past. For example, if a foundation says they want to fund more climate resilience programs in 2020 but their list of past grantees show they only fund universities (and you’re not a university) then it might not be a good fit. 

Overall, if you find what seems like a great opportunity reach out to the foundation and ask them directly before investing important time and resources into writing a full grant proposal. Check out our article, “How to Write Winning Grant LOIs (with examples)” for a few ideas on how to do that.

7. Get ready to write

With grant prospects identified, you’re on your way to start writing. Check out my favorite “How to” guide on grant writing “How to Write a Grant: Become a Grant Writing Unicorn” by grant writer and coach, Meredith Noble.

Ready to start searching for grants? Start a 14-day free trial of Instrumentl by clicking on the button below.

PS - cool lightbulb cover image photo by Diego PH on Unsplash.

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