Rachel Werner discusses prospect research

Episode aired Nov. 11, 2021: Prospect Research

Rachel Werner of RBW Strategy has raised over $130 million in grant funding. So she knows when a potential funder is a right fit- and when it’s not. In this episode Rachel discusses 

  • What to look for when determining if a foundation is a good prospect
  • Tools to research prospective funders
  • Assessing whether you’re ready to seek grants
  • Why you need to know your “why” and
  • The importance of connections when deciding whether to approach a foundation.     

Below you can listen, watch or read this podcast episode.

Ephraim: Welcome to this edition of the Your Weekly Dose of Nonprofit podcast, the podcast that delivers actionable items you can implement at your organization right away. I’m your host Ephraim Gopin of 1832 Communications. Today I’m really happy to have with us a nonprofit strategist, fundraising pro and grants expert Rachel Werner. Rachel, how you doing today?

Rachel: I’m good. Happy happy week. Happy to just have the day start this way. So it’s all good. I’m having a good day.  

Ephraim: Good. Let’s introduce you to our listeners, watchers and readers.

Rachel began her career as a New York City public school teacher, which parlayed into a two-decade career of work in the public sector. She has served as a nonprofit fundraiser, slash grant writer, grants manager at an education management organization and management consultant overseeing federal government contracts. She is now the owner and CEO of RBW Strategy, a grants and fundraising consulting firm. She and her team have collectively raised over 130 million dollars in grant funding and she has managed over two billion dollars in federal grant awards.

Rachel studied at Vassar College and received a master’s in Public Administration from New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service. She has also obtained a certificate in grants management, is a certified project management professional and is a certified grants professional. She is actively involved in the Grant Professionals Association and Association of Fundraising Professionals. She lives in Montgomery County, Maryland with her husband and two children.

Defining The Word ‘Prospect’

In today’s episode, we’re going to discuss prospect research. Let’s dive right in. Rachel, prospects are not every person in the community or everyone living in your state or country. So let’s start out with the definition. How do you define the word prospect in relation to fundraising and grant writing?

Rachel: I’m going to talk about it specifically for grants and then we can sort of parlay that to fundraising as well. So grants is just any entity and that could be an agency, a government agency- local, state, federal- and it could also be an established foundation. It could be private, corporate, family foundations that are all sort of grant making bodies, that are able to disperse funds to nonprofit, public or even some for-profit entities.

In terms of the fundraising space, you know a prospect could be almost anybody because especially if you’re talking about individual donors, that could really cover the bases and also probably want to group in their potential businesses, corporate entities because there’s a whole sort of corporate sponsorship piece there. So I would say that you would group that together but I think it’s a little bit easier to define in terms of grants as opposed to the world of potential funders. That’s how I would define it.

How To Determine Which Foundations Are A Good Target For Funding

Ephraim: Okay. Let’s move on to today’s actionable item. Let’s talk prospect research as it relates specifically to foundations and grants. Please share with us three to four things a nonprofit should be looking at when determining whether a prospect foundation would be a good target for funding. 

Rachel: I get this question so often, especially now because there’s a lot of federal grant funding that’s coming down the pike and being dispersed to nonprofits and localities. 

I think that the first thing that nonprofits need to do is really define what are their strategic priorities. Before you start going after all these different grants, you first have to define what are your needs, conducting that sort of needs analysis. And I know that a lot of clients that we have are going through a strategic planning process, especially as we’re sort of- I don’t want to say out of Covid because we’re not completely out of Covid- but as the priorities have shifted and as their target population and the causes that they that they support are really starting to shift a little bit, they’ve had to understand what do we need to do to be responsive to that. So I’d say the first is to really understand your strategic priorities. Then you can sort of get a sense of…

Then two, what are the funding gaps, both internally externally supporting your programs. I know that some… For instance, one of our clients has to shift to completely virtual platforms. So they need to focus more on acquiring technology to support those shifts, because they have to support everybody across the board, especially those that might not have immediate access to technology.

Thinking about those things can really then sort of drill down into the fundraising needs in terms of the specific funders. I would say to be very targeted and to know exactly a little bit about the funder profile that you’re looking at. Are you looking at corporate? Are you looking at private? Are you looking at government? So really identifying where you might have the most success and where you think you’ll be able to build more success in certain areas Perhaps you have contacts. Your Board might be able to leverage some of their relationships. So I would suggest looking at that as well.

And then one of the things that we do with clients, especially when determining go no go, is set some criteria. What are the criteria for determining a good prospect? Is it geographic location? Mission fit? Award size? And a host of other things that you might want to look at in terms of the giving patterns, peer organizations, looking at their 990’s. That’s sort of the last drill down, really getting into the nitty-gritty of what makes a good prospect and there’s a host of different things that you can look at and have to find out what’s specific to your organization.

Ephraim: That’s excellent advice, because not every foundation or not every funder is right for your organization. So it’s a matter of matching up those criteria.

Rachel: Exactly.

Tools For Researching Prospective Foundations

Ephraim: What tools, platforms or websites would you suggest organizations use to help them research prospective donors and prospective foundations?

Rachel: One tool that we have loved using in the past year is Instrumentl, because what we like about it is that it uses an algorithm-based approach. You’re not going to get the 5,000 hits that you would get with some of the other search engines that are paid for and it really just tries to distill the ones that make the most sense, based on some keywords and some other factors like geographic area, award size, type of funder and it also compiles information on government and private foundations. So that is a huge win, because if you’ve ever tried to look at to find a potential opportunity, it’s a needle in a haystack and it can be, even if you know the specific opportunity you’re looking for, it can still be confusing. So I think that that’s a great tool.

The other tools that we have used are GrantStation which you get free with a GPA membership, Grant Professional Association membership. Foundation Search is another one and I would even suggest especially for the local ones, is to sign up with your community foundation or your umbrella state agency. In Maryland it’s Maryland nonprofits, because you can often see some of these opportunities come out which might not be readily available in some of these search engines.  

Understanding Your “Why”

Ephraim: Excellent. I hope everybody listened and took notes because all of those are extremely useful at being able to find prospective funders and foundations. On your website,, you talk about wanting to understand the “why” of an organization. What’s your process for learning about the “why” and how does understanding that help with prospect research?

Rachel: One of the things that we do, especially for those that might be new to grant seeking, is we do a readiness assessment, to really see where they are, really getting a pulse check. That’s really an analysis of the organization’s Board, marketing programs, fundraising operations, all different kinds of areas to really see how ready you are to seek grant funding and providing recommendations to see what can you do to just make sure that you’ll be in the best position for success.

From there it really comes out with the why, because when I was talking before about understanding your strategic priorities, that’s really critical because a lot of times been in situations where somebody will say oh, you should go after this grant through Target or you should go after from Bank of America but if it has no alignment with your grants calendar or your priorities or your mission, it really has no business being there and you should not even consider them a prospect. Even if somebody you know says they know somebody who knows about somebody or something like that. I think that understanding the why will give you the focus to really narrow down on the right prospects and if you don’t know why you’re raising funds, then how can you possibly try to elicit support from somebody else who’s going to be joining you on the ride? I think that’s critical.

The Importance Of Research

Ephraim: Excellent. Speaking of research, why is research a critical component of a nonprofit’s grant strategy?

Rachel: Research I feel like they’re one of the core building blocks, because so many times organizations will go after different opportunities but again, if there’s no focus to it, if you’re not given the tools which the research will tell you… the research will tell you if this is a right fit and you can determine if this is a high priority prospect, medium, low. You can categorize it and that really kind of helps provide that area of strength.

You can also build projections as well to determine well, if this is a high prospect, we have a connection, then there’s a greater likelihood that there’ll be success, as opposed to one where it’s a national opportunity, you have no relationship or no ability to connect with them beforehand. It really allows you to assess those things and that’s what the research will tell you. Giving you those tools and also providing you with some real projections that you can then incorporate into your budget and think about that as part of your fundraising strategy.

Ephraim: Just as a quick follow-up, because I know people will ask: How important are connections in your grant strategy and looking at prospects?

Rachel: They’re the best source, let’s be honest. Because let’s say that your organization is not necessarily a hundred percent fit with that foundation. If the Board member has a really good connection with somebody at the foundation and they’re able to broker relationships, sometimes they might look past certain things where there isn’t a hundred percent fit, because of the fact that they’re so willing to give this organization a shot. So those partnerships are really critical. So to the extent that you can really hold on to those renewal relationships, because then you can even think about additional requests for funding. If you’ve been getting $10,000 every year, well maybe you should ask for that 20k because they’ve been a really strong supporter of you and I think that to the extent that you can start to navigate those relationships with new prospects and try to conduct some outreach in advance of a submission, then I think it’s really important. I’ve seen a lot of positive impacts of those modes of outreach.

Let’s Learn More About Rachel

Ephraim: Perfect. Thank you. Let’s move on to the lightning round and learn more about you. What got you started on your nonprofit career path?

Rachel: As you mentioned in the intro, I got my master’s in Public Administration from NYU. I was working as a fundraiser in New York City. At that point I thought I’m gonna be an executive director of a nonprofit because that just seems so easy. And then I started to work in nonprofits in the area of fundraising because it was a great entry point for me and I just kind of stuck with fundraising, then ditched the ED idea.

Ephraim: Got it. So given all your years in the sector, if you could shake up one thing in the nonprofit world, what would it be?

Rachel: You know, I really like that question. I think that sometimes there seems like there’s a power imbalance with the funder and the nonprofit and there’s been a lot of communication discussion about trying to eliminate some of those barriers. There’s websites like GrantAdvisor I believe which really try to provide sort of a rating system or feedback for nonprofits to share their feedback on funders. But I still feel like there’s this imbalance and to the extent that there are specific very specific criteria and reporting requirements, it’s going to still be a lot of time that nonprofits have to spend on these sort of administrative activities, rather than focusing on the causes. I feel like… love to see more unrestricted funding out there on all levels you know and I’d love to see more of that connection, especially for those BIPOC-led organizations and those who might be not as well endowed or well established as others, to have a fair shake and doing the work in the communities that they really should be.

Ephraim: An excellent answer. You mentioned that you started your career as a New York City public school teacher. What was the most enjoyable part of being a teacher?

Rachel: The breaks. No.

I think that I taught first grade and I think that to me… and actually, so my daughter’s in second grade, so I saw this firsthand when she was in her early elementary years and same with my son, is that I loved when they learned how to read and knowing that they’re reading now and they’re older now- I’m not going to say how many years- but they are older, probably in college and just seeing their transition  from pre-readers to readers, knowing that I had a part in that, was very enjoyable and seeing that transition over the years.

Ephraim: Love that one. If I were to conduct intensive research about you, what might I find out that would surprise me?

Rachel: I think that there’s a lot of things you could uncover but I think probably the most salient that I can think of is that during Covid, people tried to get into all of these different sorts of activities at home and become masters or something. So I thought I’m going to try to garden and I continue to realize that I have no green thumb. I would love for somebody to give me tips on how to be an expert container gardener but I basically kill everything that I have, even if it’s easy. So I would love to just have somebody give me some training on that, because I think it’s a wonderful hobby and I think it’d be great to feel more connected to nature that way. But I have never been able to do it. 

Ephraim: That’s an interesting one. If not Maryland, where in the world would you like to live?

Rachel: There’s so many places and that’s one thing. We used to travel quite a bit obviously before kids. But now, trying to get back into that, even local travel. I lived in New York City for about seven years and I would love to be back there. I don’t think I would want to live there full time but I just I love that and I think if I were to pick some place, I’d maybe love to live in the mountains somewhere, either North Carolina or Poconos. We just love the mountains and just love being out there and being around nature.

Ephraim: Interesting. Lastly, let’s turn the table. You get to ask me one surprise question. I have no idea what’s coming. Go ahead.

Rachel: I was thinking, as I mentioned during Covid people got into really interesting hobbies, so I got into baking and that’s something I do love to do and so that’s been really fun and I was thinking: If you could make one meal to perfection, pick like some meal, what would it be and why would you choose that?

Ephraim: I’m gonna go with steak and the reason I choose it is because I never have it. Where I live it’s very expensive and the quality of the meat isn’t bad. If you’re a meat connoisseur, it’s a little bit better in the U.S. than it is here. But steak, just a regular rib steak. I miss having that. I never have it. That’s my meal. The other meal is anything that my grandmother of blessed memory would have prepared for me. I just… whatever she would put on the table I’m eating. I can’t…  I can prepare her recipes but it’s never as good as what she did and never will be. I know that. So there’s my two: it’s either steak or if I had a chance, something for my grandmother.

Rachel: Oh that sounds wonderful and I love those recipes from my grandparents as well and I know that those… they’re never going to be as good because they just did it so intuitively. So even if you have to measure stuff out, it just feels like it’s not the same. There’s like something, a love and a care, that they put into it.

Ephraim: I used to ask her for recipes and how much of this did you put in. She said this and did that and I was like alright. I need to measure and she knows from years and years and decades and decades of doing it exactly how much is a pinch and a this and that. There’s no way I could match it. I can get close but it’s not going to match it. So yeah that’d be nice. Or a steak.

Rachel: Or a steak. Steak on the grill I assume?

Ephraim: Yes.

Rachel: That’s simple.

Ephraim: Rachel, thank you so much for appearing on the podcast. I encourage everyone to A) connect with Rachel on LinkedIn and then B) go learn more about her work at  Rachel, it was a pleasure learning from you today. Thank you for being here.  

Rachel: Thank you. Have a great one everybody. Thanks for listening.

Ephraim: Have a good day. Thanks.

Rachel: Thanks.