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Diane H. Leonard, GPC

About Diane

Tips and Tricks from the Foundation Side

The existence of a Program Officer within a charitable foundation’s staff structure and the role that they play in grant making varies from foundation to foundation.  While some foundations actively allow their Program Officer staff to provide technical assistance to potential grantees, others have their Program Officer(s) focus on technical assistance for grantees.  While some foundations are happy to discuss potential projects via phone, others do not engage in any communication with potential grantees.

Having served as a Program Officer for a statewide public foundation, I wanted to share three key tips that apply to foundations that I feel can help you navigate the various staffing patterns of foundations regardless of the specific culture of the foundation you wish to apply to.

1.  Follow the application directions. 

Really.  All of them.  Foundation board and staff members have spent a great deal of time putting together an application format that works for their review process or reviewing, and adopting a common application format for their region or state.  Respect the time that they have put into their application process and follow the word limits they set out. Use the forms provided and follow their attachment instructions.  While switching your information into their required form or format will take time, respecting their process will benefit your organization ten-fold in the long run.

Following the instructions also means not including information that was not in the allowable list of materials or attachments.  This doesn’t just apply to truly limiting your letters of support to three when you would prefer to submit four.  It also applies to not sending “thoughtful” attachments such as scented lotions with an application package (true story!) or dvds with program videos or testimonials.

 2.  Try to connect with foundation staff to discuss funding priorities and potential proposals.

However know the application guidelines before you attempt to make contact with the foundation. And be prepared to accept that the foundation staff and/or board may not be willing or able to talk with you as a result of the foundation’s organizational culture and policies for how the foundation communicates with possible grantees.

Never call a foundation and ask for the program officer to explain their funding priorities or mission to you over the phone.  Have that information well researched before hand.  Instead, focus on highlighting the mission match between your organization and the foundation. Seek specific feedback on if the nuances of your specific proposed project truly meet their funding priority areas and if the Program Officer feels that the proposal could be competitive in their funding process.

Also strongly think about 'who' it is from your organization that should call a foundation program officer to discuss a potential application.  While grant writers are phenomenal at “talking the talk” with program officers, if the grant writer isn't prepared to answer fairly basic program design or description questions, another staff person should be the one making the call. If the person calling must defer to another staff member for information that the Program Officer is requesting, it won't bode well for your organization once your application is formally submitted and is being formally reviewed. Thus, I recommend that the one conducting the outreach to the foundation Program Officer be the most knowledgeable grant team member about the proposed project or program.

3.  Both prior and after receiving funding, be consistent and timely in all communication and follow-up.

One of the most critical lessons in developing a strong relationship as a grantee with a foundation is to closely follow the mantra of doing what you said you would do, when you said you would do it.  Some of the details of how it happens might vary slightly. But following through on program deliverables as laid out in a grant application, returning a signed grant agreement by the day promised, or following up with a statistic promised during a site visit are key to establishing your credibility as a grantee and to your organization’s relationship with that particular foundation.

As in any relationship, trust takes time to build and even longer to rebuild if your organization is inconsistent in their follow through with a funder.  Not only are you jeopardizing future funding from that specific foundation, but you are also risking potential funding from other similar foundations. This is especially true if they are from the same region or niche mission focus, because foundation staff and boards share information about grantees and use each other as references when looking at new proposals.

By embracing and integrating these tips into your foundation cultivation plans and method of grant writing for your organization, I am confident that you will see the long-term results of stronger communication and relationships with foundation staff and board members.


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