To start our tips for talking to foundation program officers, remember to always read through and follow any instructions available. If they are not a responsive foundation, don’t call and ask if you can submit a grant request. If the foundation focuses on youth issues and your program is only tangentially about youth, it’s okay to inquire about funding, but phrase your question in a way that makes it clear you’ve read through their website first.
Communicate. One of the most common complaints we hear from program officers is that nonprofits only contact them right before grant deadlines if they’re having trouble with the application. Increasingly, both regional and national foundations want to engage in an ongoing dialogue with their funders so that the foundation can make informed internal grant-making decisions, and so they can help troubleshoot issues with their grantees that will ensure their funds are well utilized.
Be open – but don’t whine or vent. The one caveat to having ongoing communication with your program officer is around organizational challenges. Talking your program officer through why there’ll be a cash flow issue in the next quarter shows him/her you’re working to attack challenges head on. Telling your program officer that you think your leadership is not doing great at cutting expenses reflects poorly, representing the organization as fragmented. And never, ever get angry or complain if you don’t receive funding.
Know your materials but feel free to look into something and circle back. Obviously, don’t lie if you’re asked a question you’re not sure about. Instead, provide contextual information that you do know, and let them know you’ll find out the information they’re requesting, and actually get back to them in a timely matter. This shows that you’ll do what needs to be done to get the project done, and also gives you another opportunity to speak with your program officer! This tenant is true in any industry and was a key take-away from my Goldman Sachs training years ago.
Follow up. A thank you email or note is always appreciated. As are taking good notes so that you don’t make your program officer repeat things to you. And of course, follow their guidelines on providing reporting and evaluation information.
In short, think of the funder/grantee relationship a bit like dating. Initially, put out some well-researched exploratory questions. Be mindful of what you’re hearing and how you present yourself. Engage in meaningful conversations to move the relationship forward. And of course, always circle back with a thank you (and any appropriate reporting/evaluation) after the date… er…funding. And just like dating, think about the reputation/brand you are building–it is a small world and the funders talk to each other.
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