How Does the 990-PF of a Foundation Help Find Grants?

Why Good Grant Writers Snoop Around in the 990s of Foundations

Business people looking at report
AMV Photo/Digital Vision/Getty Images

The 990-PF is the information return U.S. private foundations must file with the Internal Revenue Service each year. The 990 is a public document that provides fiscal information, names of trustees and officers, application information, and a full grants list.

It's easy to find and look at a 990-PF online. Many large foundations post their 990s right on their websites. You can also find them at:

  • The Foundation Center: The Foundation Center's Foundation Finder is a free tool that provides basic information on private grantmakers in the United States, including access to 990-PFs. Also, the Foundation Center provides a quick tutorial on Demystifying the 990-PF that tells a grant seeker what to look for when reading a 990-PF.
  • GuideStar: This service lists most nonprofit organizations in the U.S., including private foundations. You can register for free and then use the basic search to find information and whatever 990s the organization has on file. You can also search by locality, helping you find foundations right in your own backyard that you might not know about.

What You Can Expect to Find on the 990-PF

Fiscal year
Some foundations run on the calendar year, but others have their own fiscal years. You'll need this to know when the foundation is likely to be accepting grant applications.

You'll want to compare the assets reported over several years to get a sense of whether the foundation is growing or not.

Revenue and expenses
Are revenues growing? If so, the foundation may be poised to make more grants.

Information about officers, directors, trustees
Does the foundation even have employees? Many small foundations do not. The list of trustees may reveal ties to your own directors or donors.

List of direct charitable activities
This will tell you the grants made, to whom, and their size. Looking at this info helps you decide how much to ask for in your proposal. Stay within the range of awards granted by this foundation. Don't ask for $50,000 if they usually only give $10,000.

Also, don't ask a foundation that seems to give money only to charities that help families to fund your environmental project. Matching up your nonprofit with the interests of any foundation you seek money from is the first rule of good grant writing.

Information about how to submit an application or proposal
It is important to know how a foundation wants grant applications to be submitted and when. Foundations have cycles for handling grants. It may want all applications in certain months. Some foundations have online applications that you must use. Many foundations want a letter of inquiry first. Some foundations do not accept grant applications at all.

When preparing to seek money from a foundation, it's in your best interest to learn as much about that funder as you can. The 990 is one way to do that.