When the Fairfax County Council of the Arts needed funding for an arts resource library and a program to serve handicapped children, development director Lynne Fitzhugh "made a beeline to The Foundation Center."

Tucked into a K Street office building, the center is one of two national libraries housing what staff members say is the country's most complete collection of resources on foundation funding.

Fitzhugh's research there led to a $1,000 grant from the National Home Library Foundation to stock and organize an arts library, a $500 grant from the Washington Forrest Foundation for general operating expenses and a $3,000 grant from Mobil Foundation Inc., for programs for the handicapped -- including free admission for disabled children to certain council-sponsored events.

"We are a free information agency," says the center's public-service director Carol Kurzig, "funded by foundations to demystify the grant process and help people target their proposal to the most appropriate places."

Most of the approximately 600 people who use the center each month represent nonprofit organizations, "since most foundations can make grants only to tax-exempt organizations.

"But they vary widely -- from well-established organizations like museums, symphonies and universities, to new battered-women's shelters, child-care centers and local arts groups."

The key to winning foundation grants, says Kurzig "is doing your homework. A lot of groups ask for a mailing list of all foundations and mail their proposal to everyone.

"That's a terrible idea and a waste of time and money. While some foundations are set up for broad, charitable purposes, others are set up to fulfill very specific needs -- like feeding horses on Christmas day.

"You've got to make sure the foundation gives grants to the size and nature you want to your type of organization. For example, the Cafritz Foundation limits its grants to proposals that benefit the District. So if you're serving another area, it's a waste to send them your proposal."

Unlike federal grants, which require completion of one or more application forms, the foundation-grant process, notes Kurzig, "is much more open-ended. Generally they have a board of trustees that reviews all proposals submitted and decides among them.

"It takes a certain perseverance and creativity in researching to explore what foundations say they will fund and the types of proposals they've funded in the past. A lot of people come back over a period of days."

About the proliferation of courses in "grantsmanship" and professional "grant-seekers-for-hire" Kurzig says:

"You can use up a lot of your fund-raising dollars that way. It's not that the professionals or courses aren't helpful in certain circumstances, but people can do an awful lot themselves, first, before deciding if they want to spend their money on help, or courses, or resources."

Among Kurzig's guidelines for grantseekers suggested in her new book "Foundation Fundamentals":

Decide exactly what you want the money for." "Many organizations want money, but they don't know for what."

Make sure the program for which you seek support meets a real need." "A disappointingly large number of requests derive from staff interests or a desire to utilize vacant space, rather than from a real need or serious policy issue."

Are you approaching those foundations that you have firm reason to believe will be interested in your proposal? "Remember that successful grant solicitation, unlike a lottery, does not depend on the sheer number of foundation contacts, but on identifying and then reaching those with a pattern of funding programs like the one for which you need support."

Be sure to find out about the foundation's review and administrative process. "It's amazing the number of groups who don't do follow-up. The foundation may have asked for a slight revision, and the group doesn't resubmit. Or they get a grant and never give the foundation a report or ask for additional funding. If your project is declined, try to determine why."