With the Iowa caucuses upon us, I did some noodling around on Foundation Directory Online to see how the candidates are participating in foundation-based philanthropy.
Being neither Republican nor Iowan, I won't be filling out a ballot tonight. Party affiliations aside, I think that we can all agree that it has been an interesting, unpredictable race so far.
Entering the candidates' names into Foundation Directory's "trustees, officers and donors" search field, nothing came up for Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul, and the Ricks (Perry and Santorum). Nothing for Newt Gingrich, either, until I remembered that his full name is Newton -- and then I located the Gingrich Foundation, Inc. Not surprisingly, given his tremendous personal wealth, Mitt Romney is associated with a family foundation (he is a donor to the Tyler Charitable Foundation, which used to be called the Ann D. & W. Mitt Romney Charitable Foundation II).
Foundation Directory creates a handy profile of each foundation in its database, listing basic information about a foundation's donors, background, giving restrictions, fields of interest, geographic focus, application information, officers and board members, financial data and selected grants.
But to get a complete picture of a foundation, you really need to read its 990.
Annually, every U.S.-based private charitable foundation must file an IRS Form 990 that demonstrates compliance with tax-exempt rules. 990s are by law open to public inspection. The 990 provides detailed information about the foundation's governance structure, assets and giving activities. In addition to helping you find potential funders for nonprofits, the IRS 990s can also provide some interesting insights into the people associated with foundations.
For prospect research, the most critical part of the 990 is the list of "Grants and Contributions Paid During the Year." This list can range from just half a page for small foundations that give only a few grants, to hundreds of pages for behemoth foundations such as the Ford Foundation or the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The list is typically towards the end of the 990 package, and you can find it quickly by entering the word "grants" into the search box if you are using a PDF reader with a search feature.
Reading the 990s for the Gingrich Foundation, Inc. and the Tyler Charitable Foundation from 2009 (the most recently available), here's what I learned:
- The Gingrich Foundation gave 15 grants in 2009, with grants ranging in size from just $100 (to the John Wayne Birthplace Museum in Winterset, Iowa) to $30,000 (to Luther College, also in Iowa -- Newt's wife Callista Gingrich is an alumna). Total giving in 2009 was $135,100, so I'd consider this foundation to be a "small to mid-size" family foundation in the context of all foundations nationwide. Medical research, arts and educational organizations were funded -- nothing controversial or highly unusual. (Gingrich and other public figures expect their foundations' 990s to be scrutinized, so they may reserve more polarizing contributions for their personal giving, which they may be able to keep more anonymous.) Scanning the list of grantee organizations, it's clear that Newt and Callista Gingrich are interested in Catholicism (supporting the Basilica of the National Shrine), museums, opera and dance... and John Wayne.
- The Romney family's foundation submitted a 990 for 2009 that also paints a picture of their charitable activities. The Tyler Charitable Foundation gave four grants in that year -- $600,000 to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and smaller grants to three nonprofits, My Sister's Keeper (a Boston-based women's empowerment project for Sudanese women); The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty (a DC-based nonprofit law firm); and the Mass General Hospital Cancer Center.
So what to conclude from this exercise? I don't think that these 990s can necessarily help you decide who to vote for, but these documents do reveal the quirkiness of any small family foundation.
Foundations of this size typically have the discretion to fund any organization that captures the trustees' attention. Religious families are likely to make sure that their churches are among the organizations that they support. The colleges and universities that trustees graduated from are also often supported.
But there is usually room on a foundation's docket for community-based service nonprofits, or single-issue nonprofits with a mission that is close to a trustees' heart.
Your job as a foundation grants developer for nonprofits is to find foundations that are a potential match -- by identifying which of your existing and potential supporters have influence with a family foundation; and by finding family foundations with a history of supporting organizations with missions similar to yours.
More information on research tools to help you access foundations' IRS 990s:
People in the fundraising business have access to a range of research tools, some free and some subscription-based, to access the information published in 990s.
My favorite research tools are those provided by the Foundation Center -- in particular, the Foundation Directory Online. This database is among the most expensive of its kind, but it's also the best.
If you don't have access to a Foundation Directory subscription, you can visit a Foundation Center "Cooperating Collection" location (there is at least one in every state, and more than 450 of them nationwide). Typically they are located in public libraries, nonprofit resource centers and United Way buildings. Each Cooperating Collection site provides free access to the Foundation Directory Online and other basic Foundation Center resources.
Another way to access foundations' 990s for free is to use Guidestar's "basic search" tool. Guidestar provides no-cost, reliable access to 990s, so it is a good place to go if you already have a list of prospective foundation donors and you want to learn more by reading their 990s.