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How to Use 990 Forms as a Grant Writer

Katie Cowgill grant writing unicorn
by Katie Cowgill
March 26th
Searching public 990 Forms for grant history of private foundations

If you are looking at Private Foundations for grants, you MUST know how to research their grant giving history. The way to do this is by reviewing their Federal 990 Tax Forms.

What’s a 990 Form?

In the U.S., tax-exempt organizations, nonexempt charitable trusts, and section 527 political organizations are required to file a 990 tax form to disclose information on their Board and grant giving for the year.

The 990 Form is unique to the U.S. IRS. If you are researching from elsewhere, your government will likely have an equivalent form you should be able to access.

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Why Review 990's?

There are a few reasons – anyone of which can absolutely be worth their weight in gold!

First, it’s important to confirm the organization’s giving history aligns with your funding request. Sometimes the Foundation’s website will make it look like they give to a number of different priority areas like the environment, childhood health, and the arts. Then when you look at their 990 Form, you realize that they really only fund projects in the arts. If you had an environment related project, you now know not to bother applying even though it looked like a good fit from the outside.

Second, it’s important to confirm the foundation is in fact making grant awards, and in decent amounts. Sometimes foundations aren’t making awards, or the amounts are so small they aren’t worth your time approaching. It can also be helpful to find out if the Foundation is giving grants to the same organizations year after year. If so, you know not to bother applying.

Third, since the 990 form specifies who received grants, you can reach out to those organizations for feedback on their project and experience landing a grant from the foundation. If it makes sense, kindly ask for a copy of their successful application to reference.

Fourth – it can be helpful to know who is on the Board of Directors if that information isn’t available on their website. This can be useful to determine if anyone within your organization has a relationship with a Board member to get feedback on whether or not your organization is a good fit.

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Where to find 990 forms?

We recommend accessing this information in two ways:

Searching 990 Forms with Instrumentl

Instrumentl.com is an online grant database that we absolutely adore. They take complicated IRS forms and make them easy to understand and consume. (P.S. If you end up liking Instrumentl enough to buy a subscription, tell them LearnGrantWriting.Org sent you for $50 off).

Searching with Foundation Center’s 990-Finder

Access through the Foundation Center’s 990-Finder. It’s super easy to use and it’s free. The only downside is that it gives you the actual 990 Form and it can be 50+ pages to sort through before getting to the information you want.

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