A friend of mine wrote me this question and suggested that I answer it on my blog:
Hey, Rebecca, a while back, I was a member of the Junior League and I was assigned to the committee to write grants for the League. Problem is, they had not received any grants in recent history, and had absolutely no records of any that they applied for or any that would be appropriate. (I have no idea what the person assigned to that committee the previous year did, either.) I had all the information I could possibly need about the organization, its projects, finances, etc., but absolutely no clue where to start looking for grants. What would you have done in that situation?
The fun and exciting news for those of us in fundraising is that starting from scratch happens to us all the time! We often begin without the kind of basic information we need. In this case, at least, my friend had the financial and organizational information she needed, she just didn't have any history about what worked or didn't in the organization's grant writing efforts. She wasn't at ground zero, but she wasn't exactly much above it.
As far as where to start: The first thing I would do is assess the organization's needs: What does the organization need most? Whatever the group’s most significant needs are, that’s what I would try to to find a funder for.
I’d also have a conversation with the group’s leadership—the Executive Committee, perhaps—to brainstorm and prioritize all the group’s needs—so that as a grants writer I could be on the look-out for grant opportunities that match different needs of the organization.
I suspect that my friend’s larger question about where to start is about where to begin looking for opportunities so I’ll offer several suggestions. The answer really depends on your budget and your community’s resources.
If you’re lucky, you’ll have access to a subscription to the Foundation Directory Online. The cities of New York, Cleveland, San Francisco, Atlanta, and Washington D.C. all have Foundation Directory libraries that you can visit. At these libraries, you can use the foundation directory at no charge and the librarians offer you assistance with your search. There are also free (or low-cost) classes on topics of interest to fundraisers and other nonprofit personnel (including board members) and books that are available to borrow (again, at my favorite price: free, free, free!).
If you don’t live in a city with a foundation library, don’t despair.