Foundation Program Officers – A Link to Your Campaign’s Success

Twenty-six years ago, when I submitted my first proposal to a major foundation for a capital campaign, I would have told you the most important person to know at a foundation is a key board member or trustee.Cultivate Program Officers

I still think that is very important. However, I now believe the program officer is the single most important person to develop a relationship with. The program officer is your advocate and your portal to all the trustees. The program officer is usually the person who is most familiar with your organization’s track record, various projects, and overall position within a given community, state or national context. The program officer can relate important information both to you and the foundation that may help make your proposal successful.

There are many ways to develop a strong, supportive relationship with program officers. One of the fastest ways to begin a relationship is via the old-fashioned phone. When I am working with a new foundation, I always call and ask a series of questions regarding the foundation’s mission, goals and focus areas to clarify my understanding of their printed materials and website information. I state who I am representing and that I want to be sure our project and our organization fit with their mission and goals. I am not shy about telling them that I don’t want to waste their time – or mine – by submitting a proposal that does not match their giving needs.

This discussion takes place very early in the proposal process. It often provides the opportunity to discuss the intended project with the program officer prior to any formal written letter of intent or application. Crucial information regarding the current giving climate of the foundation and the trustees’ interest the type of project being proposed is often shared during this information gathering call. To my surprise, many program officers have given guidance in wording or suggested proper timing for the letter of intent or application in that initial telephone conversation. While a printed calendar can tell you when proposals are due or accepted, a chart or web site cannot tell you when your proposal will be the most likely to be successful. A program officer can.

Cultivate the program officer as you would a top donor. Take him/her to breakfast or lunch to share information on upcoming capital projects and program needs of the organization. Always ask how the foundation is doing and what are some of their most exciting new projects. They know what campaigns are pushing the buttons or pulling on the heartstrings of the trustees. A program officer who truly knows your organization can often help define your project in terms that will be understood and embraced by the foundation’s trustees so that both missions are fulfilled.

Timing is Everything

For many proposals, timing is everything. Program officers know how the investments and disbursements for the giving year are flowing. During an informal meeting, it is not uncommon for a program officer to suggest you submit at a later date because this year’s funding is exhausted. Or, you may receive an unsolicited call after your meeting requesting that you submit within a narrow time frame because there are some excess funds that need to be disbursed rapidly.

Program officers manage and streamline the proposal process – which benefits both the foundation and your organization. If they can weed out proposals that would not be of interest to the foundation and support those that fit their mission, they have made both their job and yours a lot easier. If you get a green light to move forward with a proposal, you have a much better chance of success than if you submit a proposal with no advance communication.

I have never had a program officer tell me there was not time for me, or that they were not interested in learning about the organization and our planned capital improvements. I have had several program officers read and re-read my draft before the trustees reviewed it. This gave me the opportunity to add missing information or clarify statements. This is a practice not only in local foundations, but also major national foundations such as the Kresge Foundation. When program officers send you a page full of questions say, “Thank you, what else do you need?” They are being your friend by getting the answers to information that was incomplete or unclear. They need your answers so they can be your advocate when the trustees meet.

In addition, the program officer of one foundation can become your advocate with other foundations. It is not uncommon for foundations within a geographic area to have meetings together and compare projects to help each other evaluate how their combined assets can best meet the needs of the communities in their shared service areas. Community foundations talk to each other. Family foundations talk to each other. Corporate foundations talk to each other. National foundations talk to each other. The more program officers know about you and your projects, the more your organization will be successful because you have taken the time to become a known entity. Your friend, the program officer, has been educating the trustees and other foundations about you. So pick up the phone or send off a note and say, “Thank you! I really appreciate what you do.”

On September 26th, 2010, posted in: Campaign Planning, Foundations, Grant Writing, Program Officers by

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