I’ve completed hundreds of Prospect Research Reports, and probably reviewed thousands of foundation giving lists, over the 30+ years that I’ve been a fundraiser. When I started doing this work, most of the information was embedded in foundations’ IRS Form 990s; only a handful of foundations published their entire giving lists and histories online.

Times have changed. Now I can often find a foundation’s giving history on their website, either in a grants database that they provide to the public, or listed in their annual report, which is posted online. If I can’t find the information on the foundation’s website (including foundations that do not have website — plenty of them do not!), I can always look at the IRS Form 990, which is easily accessible through Candid/Guidestar.

OK, so you can get the information — but what are you really looking for? How do you know that the gifts you are seeing online could lead to a potential gift for your organization. Or, if you already are getting a gift from a foundation, could you get a larger gift? Here are a few tips to help you interpret the data:

Average Gift Size

Just because a foundation gives a half dozen or so gifts in the six-figure range, that doesn’t mean that your organization is likely to get a gift of that magnitude. Maybe it’ll happen! But if those half dozen gifts are part of a list of 150 gifts, that’s very different than a list of 15 gifts. Instead of identifying the largest gifts in the list, take a look at the average gift size.

You can also look at that average gift size in the context of types of recipients. For example, for a foundation that has given six gifts in the $100,000 – $250,000 range, you might observe that all of those gifts are to universities and/or private secondary schools (possibly the alma maters of the foundation’s trustees). Or, if the foundation states that their priorities are Catholic organizations and environmental causes, you might observe that all of the six-figure gifts are to Catholic places of worship. That will tell you something about the foundation’s giving priorities, how your organization aligns with those priorities, and the likelihood that you will receive a gift of a certain size.

Number of Gifts

Occasionally, you’ll run across a foundation that ONLY gives large gifts, but… they only give a total of ten gifts per year. And if you look at their giving histories over the past several years, you might notice that they almost always give to the same ten organizations. If you are not already on their list, it might be impossible for you get there.

Giving Priorities

In addition to the advice above related to Average Gift Size, you should look at the entire giving list to see which causes or organizations are emerging as priorities. They foundation’s website might state that environmental projects are the priority, but the giving list might tell a different story.

Date of the Data

If you are looking at a foundation’s website to get their giving data, the information you find might be fairly up to date. However, if you are looking at an IRS Form 990, you should bear in mind that the information there is a bit old. Typically, the IRS Form 990s that are publicly available through places like Guidestar are at least a year old e.g. in early 2024, you might be looking at a 2022 IRS Form 990, and gifts listed in that 990 could be from a prior calendar year (this has to do with IRS deadlines and organizational fiscal years). Therefore, a foundation might currently be saying that their priority is the environment, but the IRS Form 990 is reflecting different priorities from earlier years.

Don’t Overlook a Smaller Potential Gift… But Ask If It’s Worth It

Sometimes, it’s hard to know if it’s worth it to pursue a smaller gift. (I actually have a downloadable worksheet to help you figure it out!) You might look at a foundation’s giving list and see a lot of pretty small gifts. It might seem like it’s not worth it to pursue such a gift, but there are a lot of factors to consider to before saying “no”: how hard is it to secure the gift, what is the likelihood that a smaller gift to eventually be upgraded to a larger gift, etc. There isn’t an easy answer or formula here, but I encourage you to look at the whole range of gifts, the process of securing a gift, and the foundation’s overall interests before making a decision.

Nothing Replaces Good Old Fashioned Cultivation

While you can get lots of good data and information from a foundation’s giving list, nothing replaces good old fashioned cultivation. If you get to know a foundation staff and/or trustees, they can tell you if there might be a match between their giving interests and your organization! Easier said than done, I know. A lot of foundations are difficult to contact, and they might not be open to speaking with potential grantees. Use the data as a guide, but only a guide, and not the sole decision maker. There are many different factors to consider (Proposal readiness, for example, should not be overlooked.). Properly interpreting foundation giving data can help you make the decisions that will be the most productive, and lucrative, for your organization.

Don’t miss out on new ideas and great tips on fundraising, leadership, writing, philanthropy, and lots of related topics. Join the PITCH list to get Lauren’s monthly newsletter delivered straight to your inbox, and get a free gift when you sign up!