Fund Times

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Peeking Behind the Philanthropic Curtain April 3, 2012

Filed under: foundations,strategic fundraising — fundtimes @ 8:14 pm

As a fundraiser, I have always been fascinated with the decision-making process that occurs in a grantmaking organization.  Is that grant proposal that I worked so hard on buried underneath a pile of papers on some program officer’s desk?  Did I manage to capture their attention in the first few paragraphs?  Should I send a basket of Edible Arrangements to sweeten (pun intended) the deal?

Thankfully, I know this great guy named Lucas Trainer who was more than pleased when I asked him to share some insight on how best to navigate the grantmaking process with the readers of Fund Times.  Check out what he had to say!


Q: While many fundraising staff are familiar with the term “program officer”, they may not necessarily understand who or what this person’s role is within a grantmaking organization.  Could you explain what a program officer does within a foundation?

A: Day to day, program officers are involved in a variety of work to support both grant and non-grant activities that help foundations meet their objectives. Program officers are assigned to develop a clear understanding of issue areas to help accomplish philanthropic goals.

As part of their grantmaking responsibilities, program officers may work closely with nonprofit organizations, cultivating relationships, soliciting proposals, assisting grantees to improve proposal quality, and stewarding the process. They also provide critical analysis of proposal strengths, weaknesses, and risks.

Program officers are your partners in proposal development. Keep in mind that they are your most helpful allies, and that they have an interest in making sure that the board of directors reviews the best possible proposals that align with the foundation interests. They want your project to fit guidelines just as much as you do.


Q:  Decision-making on who gets grants is often clouded in a veil of secrecy within the foundation world.  Can you help clarify this process for my readers?

A: There are a variety of processes by which foundations receive, review, and evaluate requests for funding. Essentially, when a foundation receives a request, they look to see if it is a good fit for the guidelines and priorities established by their governing board, what risks are involved, and whether the project as proposed will be effective and benefit society.

Many fine proposals may come before program officers and trustees, and while the amount of resources that they have at their disposal seem large in comparison to your program, the fact is that there are over 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in the United States. Private foundations do not have anywhere near the level of resources needed to fund every project and every organization, so sometimes tough choices about what gets funded and what does not have to be made.  No program officer is ever happy to tell nonprofit leaders that the foundation cannot provide funding for their wonderful proposal at this time.

Effective grantmakers provide clear and consistent communications, and use transparent grantmaking processes. Strong foundation leaders aspire to be clear about what they will fund and why. Approach foundations with a clear sense of their priorities and interests, and pitch your proposal to make sure it is a good fit. Then, when you establish a working relationship with your program officer, you should feel free to ask about the grantmaking style of their foundation. Ask what their review process is like, how much of the proposal and correspondence that the board sees, what else they would like to know to make the most well informed decision, etc.


Q:  As a former foundation staff person, what additional advice would you offer to nonprofits seeking foundation funding?

A: Pay attention to the people behind the curtain!

It is critical that grantseekers remember that decisions about grant proposals are made by real people. They have preferences, likes and dislikes, hopes and dreams, and flaws just like any other person. It is your job to help foundation staff and board members understand how your project fits in with their interests.

As a grantseeker, you should be mindful of the perspectives of the variety of people who will read your proposal. Do not assume that staff or board members already know what you plan to do.  If they need to know something, tell them in the proposal. Do not assume that just because you mentioned an important fact in a previous proposal or report that you do not have to mention it again.

Try not to use abbreviations. It may make writing the proposal easier for you, but it makes digesting the proposal more difficult for readers without your content expertise. Remember that in a grantmaking round, foundation staff and trustees may review anywhere between 30 to 100 proposals. If every nonprofit uses two or three abbreviations in their proposals, that can quickly turn into hundreds of abbreviations or acronyms that you’re asking non-subject matter experts to immediately recall and understand.  It can be mentally jarring for the reader to refer back to the beginning of your proposal repeatedly to find the meaning of abbreviations.


Lucas Trainer recently completed a project with the Corporation for Enterprise Development where he successfully secured over $1 million in funding for policy and research project over a six-month period.  He was worked as a fellow with the Jessie Ball duPont Fund in Jacksonville, Florida.  To learn more about Lucas, connect with him on Linkedin


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