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Preparing for a Conversation with a Program Officer

It’s the beginning of a new year, which means two things: 

1.    Winter is upon us (stay warm!) 

2.    It is almost time to prepare for many foundations’ spring grant cycle. 

Whether you are new to grant writing, or you have been doing it for years, a critical part of your success lies in the relationships established with foundations to which you are applying. Many foundations employ a program officer  to represent the foundation and be  the front line of defense to all the organizations seeking funding. Today we are going to walk you through what it looks like to initiate that first conversation: How to prepare for the call, how to determine fit, and what to do with unexpected questions.

Preparing for the Call

Before you consider reaching out to a foundation, it is imperative you do your research. Some things that need to be determined prior to contacting the foundation are:

  • Does your organization have previous history with this foundation?
  • Have you read through the foundation’s website and reviewed their 990-PFs?
  • Do you have a specific project in mind?
  • Have you read all of the guidelines for the grants and priorities of the foundation?
  • Do you have anyone on your staff or board that is familiar with the foundation/program officer?

As a representative of your organization, it is important to create a strong first impression with the foundation by showing you value their time and funding priorities. The preparation list is long, but this will give you a good starting point.

Not only will you want to be familiar with their funding interests, but you will also want to ask specific questions so you know what is expected from you. Some of the questions you will want to have the program officer answer, if you do not find the answers on the foundation website or 990s, are:

  • What is a typical grant award, or a range?
  • How much should a first-time grantee request?
  • Can our organization apply in consecutive years?
  • Should we plan for a site visit? If so, will it be before or after the award?
  • How many grant proposals does the foundation typically receive in the cycle in which you are applying and, of those, how many do they typically fund?
  • Does your organization need to have the dollars in-hand before spending any money, or can you pay yourself back expenses incurred prior to receiving the check?
  • If your organization is selected for funding, when will you be notified and when will the check arrive? (These dates can be pretty far apart.)
  • If you were able to review the application, do you need clarification on any of the items requested?
  • If you are asked for an audit, will a 990 suffice? Will you need to provide an official audit, or will a compilation report or a financial review be accepted? 

It is extremely important to prepare a list like these before making your first call to the foundation to ensure you can ask as many questions as possible on the initial call.

Are They a Fit?

Part of the reason you should be diligent with your prospect research is to determine, to the best of your ability, if the foundation you are applying to is a good fit for the project or program that needs funding. Typically, it will be obvious if your program or project matches the guidelines of the foundation, but occasionally you will find that things may change based on your conversation with them.

If you have done your research and the foundation appears to be a solid match for the work your nonprofit does, then you already know your general interests are the same. Unfortunately, it’s not always that straightforward and they may have some very specific types of projects they are looking to fund which are related to the overall interests, but are different than the project you had identified. So, what do you do then?

First, don’t panic and assume your project is automatically out. Be flexible and ask yourself if it’s possible to frame your program or project through the lens of what the foundation has prioritized. Often, you can craft a narrative showing your project is compatible with the specific priorities of the foundation. You just need to look at it with a renewed perspective.

Secondly, be honest with yourself. If they are not a fit, be prepared to ask about upcoming grant cycles and if the foundation plans to shift its focus.

Sure, it’s disappointing to find out the foundation that seemed like a perfect fit isn’t, but you do not want to force it and waste your time (or theirs) with a proposal that is unlikely to be funded. Ask about their future plans, thank them for their time and make a note to have at least one conversation with them prior to the next grant cycle.

Finally, and I cannot stress this enough, do not create a project to correspond with a foundation’s interests.

I have seen this many times – a development director contacts a foundation, finds out their current project isn’t a fit, takes it back to the leadership team, and decisions are made to create a project matching the priorities of the foundation. This is a trap mindset and will take attention and resources away from the work your organization is doing.

Your leadership needs to be laser-focused on your company’s mission. It’s your job as a development professional to find grants that match the needs of your organization’s program or project, not to create projects to match the funding priorities of the foundation. Tailoring your organization’s work to find grant money is not sustainable and will discourage long-term success. Be confident enough in your organization’s work that you are willing to walk away from a foundation that is not a strong match.

Unexpected Questions


It does not matter if you are making your first ever phone call to a foundation or if you’ve been doing this for many years, you will undoubtedly be asked questions you do not have the answers to. Since these questions were not anticipated, you may be caught off guard. So how do you handle these moments?

It’s important to understand that the program officer is not trying to trip you up, they are actually doing the same exact thing you are doing – trying to help determine if your organization is a good fit. Most program officers want to help you navigate the process of determining fit. It is in the best interest of both the foundation and your organization to make sure the guidelines and priorities are clearly laid out. If you are asked a question you don’t have an answer to, you don’t need to scramble and come up with an answer on the spot. Simply tell them you are early in the process and you don’t have all the details yet.

You’ll find that most foundations are not expecting you to be able to provide comprehensive information about your program or project the first time you talk to them. Remember, this is part of your research, not the final exam. By keeping your cool and asking as many questions as it takes to have a clear understanding of the foundation and its goals, you will be able to write a stronger, more targeted proposal.

The takeaway here is this: Program Officers are here to help. They are a valuable resource for a grant writer and developing a relationship with them should be a top priority. You will find that if you do your research prior to calling, you will begin to look forward to learning about different foundations, how they fit with your organization’s mission, and you will become a much more efficient (and successful!) grant writer.

This blog is an original work of the attributed author and is shared with permission via Foundant Technologies' website for informative purposes only as part of our educational content in the philanthropic sector. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this text belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect Foundant's stance on this topic. If you have questions or comments, please reach out to our team.

About the Author

A grant writing expert, executive and development coach, fundraising consultant, and national fundraising trainer, Mandy Pearce, launched Funding for Good, Inc. in 2009 to equip organizations with the skills and tools needed to become successful and sustainable. Mandy has taken her passion and expertise for fundraising to the development field and shared it with individuals and organizations for over 23 years through executive coaching, strategic and development planning, capital campaign planning, seminars, and specialized consulting programs. Mandy’s dynamic teaching style brings thousands of people annually to her presentations at conventions, trainings, and workshops, in person and online. Her business model is centered on her key values: honesty, efficiency, direct communication, and bringing dollars to local communities.

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