What a Foundation’s Giving Pattern Reveals

How many organizations did they give to in the most recent year?

If a foundation gave over 30 grants it shows a pretty broad giving base. If they give more than 60 grants I take it as a good sign that they give broadly and are pretty amenable to entertaining proposals from organizations that they may not have given to in the past.

On the other hand, if they just gave to 10 or so organizations a little flare shoots up for me. Some foundations can even give out large amounts of money but disbursed to just a few, very lucky, grantees.

It is not uncommon to see a giving pattern of a $5 million grant, a $2 million grant and then 3 or 4 $100,000 grants. Or it maybe they give just a few $10,000 grants.

Either way, it indicates that the decision making process rests with the strong preferences of a few board members. If my organization does not have a personal connection with a board member, I would put this foundation low on my priority list.

Do they give to the same organizations more than two years in a row?

If the foundation gives a decent number of grants, I pull up their 990’s (IRS Tax Form) for the last 3 years. You can access these if you have a Foundation Center subscription through their online database. If you don’t have a subscription you can access them for free via http://foundationcenter.org/findfunders/990finder/

I compare their grantee list for three years and see how it varies. For some foundations, they just give to the same organizations year in and year out. In those cases I move on to more fertile territory.

If their giving pattern shows that they give to different organizations each year they rank as a better prospect in my book.

Do they give multi-year grants?

Take a look and see if they give multi-year grants. Sometimes these are listed on the 990. It will say something like “$50,000 as part of a 3 year $150,000 commitment.”

It’s helpful to know this for a couple of reasons.

First, you can see how much of their funds are already committed. For example, a local foundation in my neck of the woods once made a large, multi-year commitment to build a museum which severely curtailed their other giving.

This is particularly significant given the economic climate because as foundation’s portfolios and giving shrinks they will endeavor to maintain their multi-year commitments – meaning that there might not be much left in the pot for your project.

Second, it gives you an indication of whether you could apply for a multi-year grant. It is not common for a foundation to give a multi-year grant to a new grantee organization – but it does happen.


Asking these questions helps me to rank foundations in order of priority based on the initial research. Of course, this initial ranking can change drastically after your board and friends have had a chance to review it to identify links between your organization and foundation…… but that’s a discussion for another article.

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