5 Lessons Learned When I Was a Program Officer

I was chatting with a colleague at an event and made a comment about “when I was a program officer” as part of my reasoning for the details of my reply. The colleague’s surprising response was, “I didn’t know you had been a program officer for a foundation!” Now, I am not implying that everyone should know everything about a colleague’s background, least alone mine. What I took away from that comment was that being a program officer was a HUGE part of my “story” for why I work on the grant-seeking side and why I founded DH Leonard Consulting & Grant Writing Services back at the beginning of 2006, but many people don’t know that. The lessons I learned sitting in the chair of a program officer and working with peers in the grant making field from The Kresge FoundationThe Community Foundation of Southeastern MichiganThe Nokomis Foundation and the like have forever shaped my approach to grant seeking. The lessons I learned defined my approach that nonprofit capacity building and ultimately an organization’s grant readiness is a critical aspect of each and every grant application. However, rather than wax poetical all day about my fond memories of my time in the field as a program officer, I thought I would share the top lessons I learned that I apply to my grant-seeking work on a daily basis to help YOU strengthen your grant seeking as well.

Five Lessons Learned When I Was a Program Officer

1 – Building Relationships Is a Critical Part of Grant Seeking/Grant Making

Building relationships is a critical part of grant seeking. You have heard me talk about the “5 R’s of Grant Seeking” quite a bit the past few years (Readiness, Research, Relationships and wRiting, Reporting), so I won’t climb onto the soapbox today. It is equally as important for program officers to build relationships with potential, current and past grantees when their organizational capacity and culture are able to support the development of such relationships. These relationships help program officers have a strong sense of the work the foundation grantees are doing and report on the activities to their grant making committees and board members.

2 – Do Your Homework

There was nothing worse that being in a phone conversation or in-person dialogue with a potential grantee and having them share a bit about their organization or program and then pause and ask expectantly, “So do you think we are a good match?” Or to have them pause and ask questions that are clearly outlined in the published request for proposals like when is a deadline or what forms are required as attachments. It put the burden on me as the program officer in an awkward way that made me think they didn’t do their homework and perhaps were not serious about our foundation as a potential funding partner.

If you are going to reach out to a program officer, do your homework, be prepared for your conversation, phone call, or email dialogue. Be prepared with talking points that ideally include: (1) A brief introduction of who you are/what group you are with; (2) Why *YOU* think based on your research that your organization/project is a good fit for the foundation’s priorities; and (3) What questions you have about the process based on your thorough research of their published materials so that you can be as competitive in their process as possible.

3 – Pick Up The Phone

This could also be called, “don’t hide behind email.” Go old school and pick up the phone.

All of us, program officers included, are overwhelmed on a daily basis with email. Oddly enough, our phones have ceased ringing and our voicemails are rarely full as they were ten or fifteen years ago. Not only does picking up the phone show that you aren’t hiding behind email, but it is actually a strong chance for contact with foundation staff.

Now the exception to this is when a foundation or other grant making organization specifically says that phone calls are not welcome. In that case, respect their process and their wishes and follow their allowed communication channels for pre-award conversation if any are available.

4 – Leave The Rose Colored Glasses At Home

When you are able to talk with/email with a program officer, be sure you are carefully listening to what is said to you. You should have your talking points prepared and be confident in why you think you are a good fit for the foundation’s priorities based on your research. Approach the conversation with optimism. However, you must listen to the direct or indirect feedback the program officer provides you after you share your thoughts about why you are a match. A program officer does not what you as a grant seeking organization to spend time on a proposal that they *know* will not be competitive in their grant process. However, they may not directly say if you are a good fit or not. Listen carefully to their feedback – are they indirectly discouraging your application at this time? Regardless of their input, be sure to thank them for their time and input.

5 – Ask for Feedback…After EACH Proposal Whether Denied or Funded

Whether you receive a grant award or are denied, you should ask the program officer with the foundation for feedback on your proposal. Why is that you say? Most people remember to seek feedback on denied proposals to better understand if they could modify and strengthen the proposal and be competitive in a future round. Seeking feedback on an approved proposal often gets lost in celebrating the news of the award. The reality is that when a proposal is funded, there is still feedback from the grant making committee or board that could help you strengthen future proposals. Asking the program officer what in the proposal especially resonated with the decision-makers is something you will want to replicate in future funding rounds and potentially with other funders. Additionally, while the proposal was funded, it does not mean that there were no questions that the grant making committee or board would have wanted further detail or clarification on.


Are there are other lessons that you have learned if you have had the opportunity to serve in a role on the grant making side? Or from your own interactions on the grant-seeking side with program officers? We’d love to hear your other lessons! Share them in the comments section of the website or with us via one of our social media networks.

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