How to Get a Grant

Steven Puente is a current OHMA student. In this post, he describes his visit to the Foundation Center Library, located in New York City.

People can make funding sound simple. Do you remember that colorful late-night infomercial guy pitching his free money books? He wore a green suit decorated with question marks? He almost convinced me that the US government was giving money away. It seemed too good to be true. I never bought the books. He’s still selling them. I did however buy the 3rd Edition of the Grant Seekers Guide published in 1990. I purchased it at thrift shop a couple years ago because I liked its color.  

I’ll admit, I’m a bit naïve when it comes to grant seeking. I just never thought I’d have an idea worth funding. I’m not trying to be humble, it’s just the mindset I’ve had through out my life.  I also avoid doing anything I don’t have to. In the past years living in NYC, I’ve unwittingly cultivated a network of friends working on grant-funded projects. The world of grant-funded employment slowly surrounded me. In time I was hired part time on a grant. I was then having conversations about grants, brainstorming ideas for grants, even participated in grant proposals. I had thoughts of seeking grant funding for my own projects. In my free time, I would look for grants on-line that would be a good fit for my project ideas. For me the process of locating funding became overwhelming; it didn’t help that I was doing it on my own. 



A friend told me about the Foundation Center a few years ago. We were talking about a potential project and they mentioned the Foundation Center’s library and available resources. It sounded amazing yet my motivation didn’t get me past the thought. I didn’t even look at the website, I couldn’t tell you why - it just seemed too good to be true. Over the years, I’ve continued to look on-line for funding and have yet to apply for a single grant. I needed to do something different. I decided to locate and visit the Foundation Center Library located here in Manhattan. There is a lot of information on the Foundation center’s website, but access to their grants database is for subscribers only. For individual subscribers the cost is $49.99 a month. Access to their physical library - free.  I take the subway downtown to the Library and look for a little librarian help. The day I decided to visit the Foundation Center was on a Friday afternoon, on the last official day of winter. On this eve of spring it was snowing.


I walk into building 79 and am greeted by the security guard in the lobby. I tell him that I’m looking for the Foundation Center. Without hesitation, he directs me to the elevator and says, “Second floor.” I sign no registry, no I.D. shown - I do as I’m told. I take the elevator to the second floor, the doors open. There is another desk that seats a man and woman. The young woman asks me my purpose, I tell her and in unison they direct me to my right. Through the glass doors is the Foundation Center Library. In the age of Google and personal computers, I’m excited to speak to a librarian. I walk past a meeting room. It’s the size of a walk in closet and partitioned by glass. Two empty chairs, a small round table; the sign–in sheet is blank. I walk into the main library. It is well lit and inviting. Coupled with its tall ceilings and open space, the workstations appear small. There are 10 stations that include a desktop computer and a printer. A third of them are being used. What reference materials the Foundation center has bookend the room. In the middle of the library is a large reference desk with a single person at a computer. I walk towards her.

“Hello” – I say. She smiles in return.

I tell her I’m grad student looking for a grant to fund an Oral History project. She is polite and professional. Eager to help, she jumps to the first question, “Will you be applying as an individual or through a non-profit?” I’m confused by the question. We decide to search for grants in New York State for both individuals and non-profits – she is not surprised by the overwhelming number of opportunities for non-profits compared to independent researchers. I don’t want to be independent. She gives me the basic tools to search the Foundation Center’s database and sends me to my own computer.

There are very few Oral History specific grants. I think about my project and start to describe what I want to accomplish: I want to document Hepatitis C peer educators and their use of personal storytelling as advocacy within a methadone clinic in the South Bronx. Great!

There is no single grant that encompasses the project’s goals. Creativity is key. I search for grants under terms such as: addiction, community-based research, public health initiatives, and advocacy. To my surprise I was overwhelmed with the amount of data that came at me.

On this day, I did not find the perfect funding source. I printed out a couple of grants that looked promising. The term Oral History is not a useful way of locating grant funding. Yet, with some imagination and creativity the possibility of finding a funding source is real. I’ve just turned in a couple of grant applications for the first time. I expect the competition to be fierce, yet from the looks of most people using the library on that day, competition looked friendly. They seemed like earnest people seeking a dream.  I could relate.

The Foundation Center has offices in Atlanta, Cleveland, New York, San Francisco, and Washington, DC. Use of their resources is free of charge.