Researchers depend on grants to fund their work. The largest funders of research are government agencies. Private and corporate foundations also fund research. Although grants awarded by foundations are usually smaller than those awarded by government agencies, foundation grants are almost always easier to apply to, leading to lower opportunity costs.
Research grants from foundations, similar to those from government agencies, can target either individuals or institutions.
Foundations Fund Individuals & Institutions
Foundations that award grants for research activities fall into two categories. In the first category are foundations that award research grants to individuals. For these grants, everything hinges on the strength of the principal investigator. In the second category are foundations that fund organizations and institutions; here, the overall strength of the institution matters more than the presence of a particular individual (although having a star researcher on staff doesn't hurt!).
Foundations May Narrowly Define Permissible Research Topics & Geographic Focus
Within each of the two categories, awards for individuals versus awards for institutions, there are generally two types of funding strategies. Under the first strategy, a foundation has a narrowly defined interest in a particular area--for example, conservation of turtles--and it only funds research projects within that focus area. Other foundations fund areas more broadly. Instead of funding research related to conservation of a specific animal, the funder may fund a variety of environmental and conservation projects. However, even though the research topics may be open-ended, funders frequently still impose geographic limits where the research should take place (e.g. only funding work in the coffee-growing regions of Latin America).
U.S. foundations sometimes limit grants to U.S.-based researchers and institutions, but many, if not most, will consider applications for research projects conducted by investigators and institutions located outside of the U.S.
Identify Foundations through Research & Databases
To find foundations that fund research in your area of study, you'll need to generate a list of potential funders using prospect research. You can generate your list a few different ways, including using your professional network and a donor database.
Here are four strategies to try:
Research your colleagues and competitors: You probably know many people working in your field of research by name if not personally. In your pursuit of grant funding, one of the first things you'll want to do is to investigate who is funding your colleagues. Since many funders require public acknowledgment of their gifts, you are likely to see language like "this research was funded in part by the X, Y, Z Foundation" in research publications by your peers. In addition, research the funders of your home organization or institution. While some donors may only fund at the institutional level, others will accept applications from both individual investigators and institutions. To learn about institutional grants, two good sources of information are annual reports and news releases.
Research companies with a connection to your research area: Companies offering services or products relevant to your research area should also be investigated as potential sources of funding. For example, energy companies fund clean energy research and food giants like Nestle fund nutrition research. Also look at companies that produce the materials and tools you use in your research. Examples include chemical manufacturing companies if you are a chemist, or tech companies if your research area relates to computer science.
Research companies that have a presence in your geographic area: In addition to a subject-matter connection, look at the corporations with operations in your state or country. Most multinational companies have corporate philanthropy programs that provide grants or in-kind donations in every community where they have a presence. For the best chance of finding a company that might be a good fit, look for companies operating in your geographic area that have some connection to the work you do.
Use a funder database to uncover leads: One of the easiest ways to generate a list of potential funders is to use a donor database. Using a database is by far the fastest way to generate a list of funders to investigate. If you work at a large institution, your institution probably subscribes to at least one, if not several, donor databases. Some donor databases include a range funders (private foundations, corporate foundations, multilateral funding mechanisms such as UN agencies) and include funding options for both organizations and institutions. Other databases, such as SciVal Funding, are more specific to academic settings and scientific research.
If you choose to go with a single research strategy, using a funder database is arguably the best choice because you'll generate the most leads. Additionally, through the database, you'll have immediate access to summaries of each of the funders including funding priorities and application due dates. However, databases are not without their challenges. The challenge of using a database is that you'll be inundated with information; it could take you weeks to sort through the list of potential funders generated by the database, most of whom will not be appropriate to your situation. This is why, although initially it takes more effort, it can be most efficient to start your research by learning who is funding your colleagues and which companies have a presence in the geographic area where you work.
Examples of Foundations Funding Research
Below is a sample of the foundations that fund research activities. As you'll see, several of the foundations focus on projects related to conservation, which is an area with a large number of donors supporting projects internationally.
Mastering the Prospect Research Process
To get more comfortable conducting prospect research, which is the process of finding and evaluating potential funding sources, visit the websites of several foundations to become familiar with what foundations share about their programs and how they present information related to funding eligibility.
Free Download: Prospect Research 101