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Program Officers’ Wish List

‘Tis the season to begin making lists of things for which we are thankful and those that could make life just a little better. Program officers inevitably recognize pieces of their jobs for which they are grateful, and like most of us, they undoubtedly see aspects of the daily grind that drive them crazy.

We all have parts of our jobs that drive us crazy. But when you’re a program officer, those annoyances may inadvertently preclude some innocent grantseeker from getting her program funded. So it is a time-honored grantwriter’s tradition to insure that program officers are as happy as possible when our proposals are on their minds.

How can we guarantee that our program officers are best able to do their jobs? I have asked several of them about their hopes, wishes, and pet peeves, and many of their thoughts follow similar patterns. The sentiments that follow are quite logical, reasonable, and frankly, they would make my job more pleasant if I were in their shoes. So how can we shorten the holiday wish list for our respective program officers?

  • Research, research, research. Program officers are inundated with applications that have nothing to do with a foundation’s areas of interest. Yes, foundations often appear to fund programs outside of their priority areas, but those almost inevitably result from relationships with foundation staff or board members. If you haven’t thoroughly discussed a seemingly unrelated project idea with foundation staff, don’t bother to submit the proposal. In addition to learning a funder’s areas of interest, it also pays to research other grants that the foundation has made. A number of program officers say that projects are often denied because proposals reflect duplicate efforts within the foundation, government initiatives, or other funders. Foundation stakeholders usually prefer that each funded project has a unique aspect that distinguishes it from others; clearly articulate that distinction.
  • Be inclusive. When you work at an academic institution or another organization that employs technical specialists, be sure to involve those people in the solicitation process. Foundation staff prefers their involvement in all aspects of the proposal process, including the initial stages. A number of grantmakers, especially those who specialize in academic fields, are responsive to hearing initially from principal investigators, as opposed to development officers. That way, the parties who understand a project’s technical details may discuss those up front. This begins to get at the uniqueness of the project referenced above and makes for a productive way to begin a relationship with a funder.
  • Write simply. The volume of reading can be immense for program officers, so a readable document can go a long way toward making your proposal an appealing one. Headings, subheadings, generous margins, and relevant graphics will make your document pleasurable to read. One of the most obvious — and most overlooked — ways to enhance your writing is to make your point concisely. Your case will maintain its momentum when it is stated briefly and clearly. And your program officer will be able to maintain her enthusiasm for your project when the proposal keeps her attention.
  • Be responsive. In the last ten years, the volume of work at most foundations has doubled and staff has been cut, so there is little chance for meaningful relationships with applicants. However, when the opportunity is presented to a grantseeker — that is, when a full proposal is requested — the applicant is often delayed, nonchalant, or completely neglectful in communicating back to the foundation. These days, grantseekers are lucky to secure a meeting with a program officer, and equally fortunate if foundation staff reads a proposal in depth. Not only should applicants respond promptly to program officers, but they should follow up on every issue addressed in the program officer’s comments or in the request for proposals. Even if you don’t have the information requested at hand, contact the foundation immediately and promise a date by which you can deliver it. Don’t frustrate a program officer by procrastinating during this sensitive part of the grantseeking process — following up with an interested funder should always be a priority.
  • Be honest. Most program officers have been in the business long enough to know when you are making unattainable promises. If you don’t acknowledge likely challenges, he or she might assume that you do not foresee difficult issues. Obviously, you want to focus on the positive aspects of your project as much as possible, but be forthcoming if you are aware of special circumstances surrounding your outcomes, evaluation, or other program components. Program officers have likely encountered the same obstacles with other grantees, and they will appreciate that you recognize and are willing to address potential problems.
  • Follow directions! We’ve all heard this mantra before, but this is truly the number one way to ensure any kind of relationship with funders. To follow directions is to keep yourself in contention for a grant, but to ignore them is often to disqualify yourself from the process. With the increase in proposal volume, program officers are often forced to look for ways in which to weed out applicants. If your proposal is too long, late, lacking required detail or is submitted before it is requested, you may well count your opportunity good-bye.

Most of these items are the stereotypical do’s and don’ts that development officers hear throughout our careers. The good news is that with a little common sense and common courtesy, we can please our program officers and, hopefully, win that next grant. We and our program officers will be the more thankful for it.

 

Susan Schaefer

About the Contributor: Susan Schaefer

Susan is a seasoned consultant, writer and speaker who is passionate about the nonprofit sector. Her practical approach to fundraising and board development has made her a frequent speaker at conferences and in classrooms. She founded Resource Partners LLC in 2001 with a mission to help nonprofits excel. Her work with executives, development staff and boards has empowered dozens of organizations to reach and exceed their financial goals. Susan brings integrity and proven results to all her work, resulting in clients who return to her again and again. She co-edited The Nonprofit Consulting Playbook: Winning Strategies from 25 Leaders in the Field, published by CharityChannel Press. Prior to founding Resource Partners, Susan helped lead the design and implementation of The Gates Millennium Scholars Program, funded by one of the largest private grants in history. Throughout her career, she has held seats on nonprofit boards, regularly holding leadership positions. Her next adventure includes serving as adjunct faculty at Johns Hopkins University. Susan holds a master’s degree in Not-for-Profit Management and a bachelor’s degree in English, both from the University of Maryland.

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