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Bob Wittig

About Bob

Getting to Know You: Approaching a New Program Officer

When approaching a foundation for the first time, the person doing the talking for the grant seeker is the face of the organization. How you handle the initial approach will result in the grant seeker taking either two steps forward or three steps backwards in terms of establishing a relationship with the program officer.

In my twenty some years in the nonprofit world, I have been on both sides of the grant equation — as a grant seeker and grant maker. So while nothing I share below can be considered earth shaking, I nonetheless want to suggest a few “Do’s” and “Don’ts” on how to strategize, prepare, handle, and follow-up with a program officer. I’ve learned some of these the hard way!

  • DO be persistent but DON’T be a pest—calling every day for two weeks and leaving a message for the program officer may seem like you are being persistent however from the program officer side it is anything but! If you have to leave a message, force yourself to wait at least a few days before calling again.
  • DON’T wait until a day or two before a deadline to call and find out every last detail about the foundation. Usually, it is much better to call between cycles. Typically a program officer has more available time a few weeks before and after a board meeting (at least this is the case for me). As part of your fundraising plan, strategize when the best time to first approach a new foundation is and give yourself “first call” deadlines much in the same way you give yourself proposal deadlines.
  • DO research about the foundation before you make the call—be sure that your organization’s mission or the particular project for which you seek funding is at least in the ball park for funding consideration at the foundation. This seems so obvious to say but I have received calls from organizations that are just fishing for funds and are calling every foundation in the phone book regardless of whether or not the organization’s mission meets our foundation’s funding priorities.
  • DO have an outline of what you are going to say. This is important if you have not made these kinds of calls before (once you get in the swing of it, your pitch will become second nature). Give the “Cliff Notes” version of your organization and for what you seek funding.
  • DO ask any program officers that you already know to recommend program officers at other foundations who you may contact. If you can say that Bob at XYZ Foundation suggested you call, you will have a much better chance of at least getting the program officer’s attention.
  • DON’T send a ton of information before you call. A packet brimming with press releases, CD ROMS, newsletters, annual reports, audits, and testimonials has little chance of actually being read through. Rather, if sending something is part of your introduction plan, a simple cover letter that describes your organization and your funding idea and possibly a brochure or two is all that is necessary. Then follow-up after a week or so to be sure the program officer has received the information, if there are any questions, and if your funding idea seems like a possibility.
  • DO attend any opportunities to meet funders in person. Many areas have “Grant Maker Panels” or “Meet the Funders Workshops.” When I was a grant seeker, these workshops gave me a chance to network and meet new program officers as well as say “Hi” to the ones I already knew. As a grant maker, I present at these workshops because I want to get the word out about my foundation and connect with potential, new grantees.
  • DO accept the fact that the foundation may not be funding new organizations at the current time or that your funding ideas are not something the organization will fund right now. If that is the case, ask if it would be possible to follow-up again in 3 or 6 months—and then be sure to do it!
  • In the event that you were persistent but unsuccessful in reaching the program officer, DO submit a letter of inquiry or proposal to the foundation for consideration. Hopefully the program officer will recognize your name and organization from the voice messages!

I am sure that my short laundry list above is far from comprehensive but for those new to grant writing, hopefully it is of some help. How you initially approach a program officer really can make or break the relationship. A bit of up front strategizing and reflection can help you approach the program officer confidently and with better chances for success.

As always, good luck!



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