Foundations – How to Start the Conversation with Program Officers

by | Feb 15, 2021 | Grant Writing

It’s Spring ‘grant season’ which means two things:

  1. The holiday break is over and it’s time to start raising money again.
  2. You probably need to have a few conversations with foundation program officers to identify ideal prospects for your current needs.

Whether you are new to grant writing, or you have been doing it for years, a critical part of your success lies in having a conversation with program officers for the foundation(s) to which you are applying. Many foundations employ a program officer. This person represents the foundation and is the front line of defense to all the organizations who are seeking funding. Today we are going to walk you through what it looks like to initiate that first conversation with program officers: How to prepare for the call, how to determine fit, and what to do with unexpected questions in your conversation with program officers.

Preparing for the Call

Before you consider having a conversation with program officers, it is imperative that you do your research. Some things that need to be determined prior to contacting the foundation are:

  • Does your organization have previous history with this foundation?
  • Have you read through the foundation’s website and reviewed their 990-PFs?
  • Do you have a specific program or project in mind and how does it align with the foundation’s current priorities?
  • Have you read all of the guidelines for the grants and priorities of the foundation?
  • Do you have anyone on your staff or board that is familiar with the foundation/program officer?

Regarding preparation, there are too many things to list, but let’s look at a few of the first steps.

As a representative of your organization, it is important to create a strong first impression. A good conversation with program officers shows that you value their time and funding priorities.

Not only will you want to be familiar with their funding interests, but you will want to ask specific questions to get a feel for what can be expected on your end. Some of the questions you will want to have the program officer answer, if you do not find the answers on the foundation website or 990s are:

  • What is a typical grant award, or a range (you can also find this on the foundation 990-PFs)?
  • How much should a first-time grantee request?
  • Can our organization apply in consecutive years?
  • Should we plan for a site visit? If so, will it be before or after the award?
  • How many grant proposals does the foundation typically receive in the cycle in which you are applying and, of those, how many do they typically fund?
  • Does your organization need to have the dollars in-hand before spending any money, or can you pay yourself back expense incurred prior to receiving the check?
  • If your organization is selected for funding, when will you be notified and when will the check arrive? These dates can be pretty far apart.
  • If you were able to review the application, do you need clarification on any of the items requested?
  • If you are asked for an audit, will a 990 suffice? Will you need to provide an official audit, or will a compilation report or a financial review be accepted?

NoteWe have an entire YouTube playlist of around Having Conversations with Program Officers and Foundation Staff. We role play some common scenarios so you can see exactly the types of questions and answers to expect as you reach out in your own grant writing process.

It is extremely important to prepare a list like this before having you first conversation with the foundation. This ensures that you can ask as many questions as possible on the initial call.

Are They a Fit?

Part of the reason that you want to be diligent with your prospect research is to determine, to the best of your ability, if the foundation you are applying to is a good fit for the project/program that needs funding. Typically, it will be obvious if your program or project matches the guidelines of the foundation, but occasionally you will find that things may change based on your conversation with a foundation.

If you have done your research and the foundation appears to be a solid match for the work that your nonprofit does, then you already know that your general interests are the same. Unfortunately, it’s not always that straightforward and they may have some very specific types of projects that they are looking to fund which are related to the overall interests, but are different than the project you had identified. So, what do you do then?

First, don’t panic and assume that your project is automatically out. Be flexible and ask yourself if it’s possible to frame your program or project through the lens of what the foundation has prioritized. Often, you can craft a narrative that will show that your project is compatible with the specific priorities of the foundation, you just need to look at it with a renewed perspective.

Secondly, be honest with yourself. If they are not a fit, be prepared to ask about upcoming grant cycles and if the foundation plans to shift its focus. Sure, it’s disappointing after having a conversation with a foundation that seemed perfect to realize its not a good fit. You do not want to force it and waste your time (or theirs) with a proposal that is unlikely to be funded. Ask about their future plans, thank them for their time and make a note to have at least one conversation with them prior to the next grant cycle.

Finally, and I cannot stress this enough, do not create a project to correspond with a foundation’s interests. I have seen this many times – a development director contacts a foundation, finds out that their current project isn’t a fit, takes it back to the leadership team and the decision is made to create a project to match the priorities of the foundation. This is a trap mindset and will take attention and resources away from the work your organization is doing.

Your leadership needs to be laser-focused on your company’s mission. It’s your job as a development professional to find grants that match the needs of your organization’s program or project, not to create projects to match the funding priorities of the foundation. Tailoring your organization’s work to find grant money is not sustainable and will discourage long-term success. Be confident enough in your organization’s work that you are willing to walk away from a foundation that is not a strong match.

Unexpected Questions

It does not matter if you are making your first ever phone call to a foundation or if you’ve been doing this for many years, you will undoubtedly be asked questions that you do not have the answers to. Since these questions were not anticipated, you may be caught off guard. So how do you handle these moments?

It’s important to understand that the program officer is not trying to trip you up, they are actually doing the same exact thing that you are doing – trying to help determine if your organization is a good fit. Most program officers want to help you navigate the process of determining fit. It is in the best interest of both the foundation and your organization to make sure the guidelines and priorities are clearly laid out. If you are asked a question that you don’t have an answer to, you don’t need to scramble and come up with an answer on the spot. Simply tell them that you are early in the process and you don’t have all the details yet.

You’ll find that most foundations are not expecting you to be able to provide comprehensive information about your program or project the first time that you talk to them. Remember, this is part of your research, it’s not the final exam. By keeping your cool and asking as many questions as it takes to have a clear understanding of the foundation and its goals, you will be able to write a stronger, more targeted proposal.

The takeaway here is this: Program Officers are here to help. They are a valuable resource for a grant writer and developing a relationship with them should be a top priority. You will find that if you do your research prior to calling, you will begin to look forward to learning about different foundations and how they fit with your organization’s mission and you will become a much more efficient (and successful!) grant writer.

Need more insights on conversations with program officers? Check out our course:

Cold Turkey Conversations with Donors: Getting a Foot in the Door and an Ask on the Table 


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