Developing Your Foundation Research Strategy – Part 2 of 2

I have been conducting quite a bit of funder research lately, which has given me an opportunity to further develop my foundation research strategies. Last week in Developing Your Foundation Research Strategy – Part 1 of 2, I discussed search term selection and addressing previous funders.


You may have heard the phrase “Plan the work, then work the plan.” Once you have identified the strongest search terms to try (I use the FDO as an example, but this can be adapted to any database), it is helpful to logically plan how to you will use them. This ensures that your research is thorough, especially if multiple people are contributing to the research effort. Documenting the search terms that filters that you use also creates an institutional memory for the organization that will be useful when planning future research strategies.


Search Terms

I start with the most narrow subject area and geographic focus terms that are applicable to my project, and gradually broaden as needed to increase viable results. For example, my search terms for potential funders of a hospital in Buffalo, NY would look like this, from narrowest to broadest:

  • Hospital care → In-patient medical care →  Health
  • Buffalo, NY → Erie County, NY → Western New York → New York



In my example, matching each subject term with each geographic term results in twelve unique combinations that provide an exhaustive search of these terms. Keeping the subject term constant while exhausting the geographic terms (going down the “subject area line”), narrowest to broadest, the search would look like this:

  • Hospital care + Buffalo
  • Hospital care + Erie County
  • Hospital care + Western New York
  • Hospital care + New York


  • Repeat with “in-patient medical care”


  • Repeat with “health”


Documenting Combinations

I create a table with six columns: Subject, Geographic Focus, Years, Support Strategy, Exclude Grantmakers Not Accepting Applications, and Other, and plan my subject + geography combinations first. Sometimes I group related very narrow subject terms together (an “OR” search in the FDO). As I use additional terms or filters to narrow results, especially when working with the broadest terms, I document them in the table.


I usually do not select a specific support strategy unless I am looking for capital funding, which adds a “capital line” to go down. My combinations might start looking like this:

  • Hospital care + Buffalo + capital support strategy


With limited results, I might expand to:

  • Hospital care + Buffalo + default support strategy (“Who hasn’t funded a related capital project yet but may be interested?”)


Color coding within the table helps show what is changing in each search.


Research Questions

It may be helpful to actually write out research questions. Nonprofit staff who are not familiar with the FDO may find a list of research questions easier to grasp than a giant table of search terminology (I provide both). An example of a simple research question is: “Who funded hospital care in Buffalo, NY between 2013-2018 and accepts unsolicited requests?”


Check in over the next few months for more foundation research tips!  

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