Program officers at foundations can be a valuable resource for nonprofit organizations. Often a short phone conversation with a program officer can quickly resolve any questions you might have related to eligibility, project scope, funding priorities, and application guidelines.
Foundations large enough to support a full-time staff generally will have program officers managing their grant programs. The program officers can be based at the foundation's headquarters or in a field office.
If the foundation funds multiple program areas (e.g., environment, education, global health), each program area could be led by one or more program officers of varying expertise and seniority. For example, if a foundation supports efforts to reduce the effect of climate change, the program officer leading the environment portfolio might have a background in environmental studies or climate science. If the foundation has a program related to maternal and child health, the program officer could be a public health professional or a physician.
What Program Officers Do
Depending on the foundation, program officers can be involved in several aspects of grant management, such as:
helping to shape the goals and direction of the program area they lead;
serving as the point of contact for their program area;
organizing the reviews of grant applications; and
providing recommendations to the foundation's board regarding which grant applications should receive funding.
A program officer, particularly in a field office, will serve as the "face" of the foundation in the local community. He or she will be the person who meets with local nonprofits, interacts with government officials, and visits grantee project sites to monitor progress. Additionally, in the field and at the foundation's headquarters, the program officers will meet with representatives of nonprofit organizations interested in receiving new or ongoing funding from the foundation.
What Program Officers Do NOT Do
If you have a question about a solicitation or the foundation’s funding priorities, it's worth contacting a program officer to seek clarification. However, there are limits on the assistance program officers can provide.
Program officers generally will not:
Address Competitiveness: Program officers can clarify eligibility issues, but they cannot predict whether you'll receive funding. When you apply for a grant, your success depends on the quality of your application relative to the other applications received. To help you decide whether to apply, you could ask the program officer to describe the kinds of organizations they typically fund and what they look for in applicants. The program officer's response may give you an idea of how competitive for funding your organization would be.
Give You Exclusive Information: Program officers are not going to share exclusive information with you. If a program officer answers a question you have about the solicitation, you should anticipate that the program officer will share the same information with other applicants. If the funder has a formal Q&A period as part of the solicitation process, you will need to ask your questions within the timeframe given. If you don't take advantage of the Q&A period, you may be out of luck. After the Q&A period closes, the funder may not allow additional questions to be submitted or permit applicants to contact program officers about the solicitation.
Review Your Application: Except under unusual circumstances, program officers will not review proposal drafts and provide applicants with feedback. Reviewing draft applications raises a potential conflict of interest issue for program officers since they often play a significant role in determining which applications receive funding. Additionally, if a program officer agrees to review one draft proposal, to be equitable, she should extend the offer to all applicants. With many foundations receiving hundreds of applications in response to every solicitation, such an offer would be impractical.
There are two circumstances where we've seen program officers review draft applications.
The first is when an organization prepares a grant proposal in response to a non-competitive opportunity. If it's a non-compete, the proposal is not being used to determine who will receive funding, which eliminates or reduces conflict of interest issues. The proposal development period in a non-compete situation is an opportunity for the funder and applicant to discuss the future project and engage in co-design work. As part of the collaboration, the program officer may review a proposal draft to ensure that the proposal under development matches what they discussed and what the foundation intends to fund.
The second circumstance where we've seen program officers provide feedback on proposals has occurred with small, loosely structured family foundations. In these cases, the program officers expressed interest in funding the organization and agreed to review a draft of the proposal in advance of presenting the final version to the foundation's board.
Tips for Contacting a Program Officer
The foundation’s website should list the names and contact information of its program officers as part of the program descriptions, the foundation's "about us" page, or the staff directory.
To ensure that your interaction with the program officer goes smoothly, below are three things to keep in mind:
Prepare: Before you contact the program officer, you should prepare talking points about your organization and your potential project idea. To answer questions about eligibility and fit, the program officer might ask questions like What does your organization do? What kind of project do you have in mind? Will you be partnering with other organizations? Do you plan to be the lead applicant? Where would your proposed project take place? While you don't need to have a detailed project plan ready, you should have a rough idea of what you want to do. Without some basic information, the program officer will be unable to assess your situation and give you appropriate guidance.
Research: If you have a question about a foundation and its application process, hold off on contacting the program officer until you’ve conducted due diligence. You can probably answer most of your questions through a careful review of the foundation's FAQ page, the program description, and the solicitation. If the information you need is missing, difficult to interpret, or contradictory, then it's appropriate to contact the program officer for clarification.
Inquire: When you meet with program officers, the focus should be on them, not you. Let the program officers know you are interested in their work. For example, you might say, "Our organization focuses on ABC and has programs that do XYZ. We are interested in your foundation's initiatives because they appear to correspond with the direction our organization is heading. We wanted to meet with you to learn more about the foundation's current thinking on XYZ issue." The main goal of the meeting should be to gain insight into the foundation and what they are seeking from potential grantees. A secondary goal should be to leave a favorable impression on the program officers, which might lead them to invite you to apply to future opportunities.
When Is the Best Time to Contact a Program Officer?
The best time to contact a program officer depends on what your question is. If your question is general and not tied to a specific solicitation, you can submit your question any time. If your question relates to a specific solicitation, you should check the solicitation before you contact the foundation to see if there is a process for submitting questions. However, after the formal Q&A for the solicitation has closed, the program officer may still be willing to answer some applicant-specific questions (e.g., related to eligibility) by phone or email.
How Should You Contact a Program Officer?
Program officers appreciate being contacted initially by email instead of through a cold call. If you want to set up a conference call with a program officer, include in your email a brief description of your organization and what you want to discuss. The program officer may choose to respond to your question by email. If the program officer is open to having a call with you, consider using a service like freeconferencecalls.com to make it as easy as possible for everyone to connect.