Staking Your Claim at the Foundation Center Library

You lucky prospector! We’ve struck a rich vein and we’re feeling generous. If you’re a photographer who has already given some thought to the various funding options, and now you want to know more about grants, then you’ve come to the right place. We’re going to tell you all the details on using the Foundation Center’s enormous wealth of data to find financial backing for your individual photography project. If you’re not sure if grants are a good option for you, check out Elements of Grant Seeking to learn what you need to know to make the right decision.

Extra! Extra! Download free guidelines for grant-seeking photographers. Includes useful tips on finding funders, submitting inquiries and proposals, and maintaining fundraising relationships.

What’s a Foundation Anyway?

A foundation is a kind of charitable non-profit organization that gives away money. Some foundations have many employees and billions of dollars in assets, but most are much smaller, with only a handful of staff and more modest sums of money to give. Each foundation has an explicit purpose and specific fields of interest, and funds projects that align with its particular mission. Interest areas run the gamut from wildlife to healthcare to international affairs. Some foundations are dedicated to supporting emerging artists, including photographers.

Before you look for funders, you must be able to articulate the purpose of your project and explain specifically who will benefit from it.

While there are some foundations that focus on the photographic medium, there are far more that support photography projects because the subject matter relates to a particular issue. Finding a foundation grant for a photography projects requires you to think about your work in a particular way: that is, one with a mission or purpose. Before you look for funders, you must be able to articulate the purpose of your project and explain specifically who will benefit from it.

The Church of Grants

The Foundation Center is a non-profit organization headquartered in New York, with five learning centers in major cities and partnerships with libraries throughout the United States. The Foundation Center connects people with the resources they need to make positive change, principally by maintaining the country’s biggest databases of grant makers and their grants. Just about anyone in the United States can get full free access to these databases at their local library through the Funding Information Network. Find the one closest to you, check the hours, and be sure to set aside plenty of time for your first visit.

This is what it looks like inside the Free Library of Philadelphia

This is what it looks like inside the Free Library of Philadelphia. Isn’t it nice?

Individuals Need Grants Too

Finding direct support for an individual project can be challenging because many foundations fund only 501(c)(3) tax-exempt non-profit organizations. This is because foundations can legally support only certain kinds of projects. By sticking to non-profits that are registered with the IRS, complying with the law is much simpler for them. However, some foundations do give grants to individual artists, and the Foundation Grants to Individuals Online is a good place to find them. This database of nearly 10,000 foundations includes only those that fund individuals like you, so you won’t have to slog through profiles of grant makers who exclusively support organizations.

This database of nearly 10,000 foundations includes only those that fund individuals like you.

The Granddaddy of Databases

You can aways search the enormous Foundation Directory Online as well. You’ll have to do more work to find out if the donors you find are willing to fund individual projects, but it will probably be worth the extra effort. Because this database includes over 120,000 donors, you’re sure to come up with some good leads to pursue.

Info Sleuthing

Once you’re set up at your local Foundation Center library location, you’ll want to use the advanced search function to scour the Foundation Directory. Keep in mind that this is a little different from doing an ordinary google search. Information in the database is tagged only with specific terms—so don’t just type any old keywords in the search fields. Click view index under each heading, read through the entire index, and select from the terms listed.

Among the most important search fields here are Fields of Interest and Geographic Focus. Fields of Interest are the categories used to organize the different kinds of projects that donors may fund. Remember to include not only art and photography, but also the subject matter of your photos. Sit down and talk to the librarian about the details of your work to get more ideas about which Fields of Interest to check.

Note that there’s a difference between Grantmaker Location and Geographic Focus. Geographic Focus tells you where the donor does its giving. Most foundations focus on certain locations (not necessarily just where they themselves are headquartered) so you’ll want to make sure you are looking for those that give in your area.

Pro tip: use Boolean terms to maximize the effectiveness of your database search.

Getting Results

We recommend starting with a broad search—leaving some fields like Types of Support blank— and then using filters in the left-hand sidebar to narrow your results to a manageable number. If you filter out too many results, you can clear your filters by clicking the clear button at the bottom of the page.

Once you’ve got a good number of results, you’ll click to view the record for each grant maker. The first thing you’ll want to do is check the Limitations section to ensure that the foundation doesn’t exclude projects like yours. If your project doesn’t fit within the guidelines, move on.

If your project is of a type the organization funds, then read the Purposes and Activities section for a brief statement of the grant maker’s mission. Remember that you must be able to explain clearly how your project relates. When you find a possible match, email the record to yourself. Check your email before you leave the library to make sure the information made it safely to your inbox.

The database records you find are a great starting point. Before you submit an inquiry, you’ll have to do further research to find out more about potential grant makers. If you find a promising donor in Grants to Individuals, also check the record in the Foundation Directory database for more detailed information. After that, you’ll want to visit the organization’s official website, google them, and see if you can find articles about them in the news.

The database records you find are a great starting point.

Ask an Expert

Building database searches takes fairly advanced skills, so it’s a good idea to enlist help from the librarian at your local Funding Information Network location. Try calling ahead to make an appointment before you head over to the library. That way you’ll be sure to get one-on-one time with a real person who is thoroughly trained to find the kind of information you’re looking for. After discussing your work, your helpful librarian will be able to show you how to build the most effective searches for your particular project. Don’t be shy—this is what librarians are there for!

Expanding Your Eligibility

If you have trouble finding grant makers for your individual photo project, it may well pay off to get yourself a fiscal sponsor. Fiscal sponsorship enables you to approach many, many more funders—i.e., those that only fund 501(c)(3) non-profits. Basically, fiscal sponsors are organizations that get grants and then disburse the funds to individuals. It’s is a legal relationship that comes in many varieties. When looking for a fiscal sponsor, make sure that you’re dealing with a veritable is 501(c)(3) organization and that you understand the terms of the agreement.

Extra Credit

The more you know, the better your chances of getting a grant to make your photo project happen. Most of us don’t have much experience in the world of finance, so it will probably take some time to get familiar with all you need to know. Fortunately, there are resources aplenty, including lots of useful information right here on the ONWARD blog.