How to be your Program Officer's BFF

New Voices of Philanthropy is participating in this month’s giving carnival hosted by Arlene Spencer's Seeking Grant Money Today blog. The topic this month is “ Are relationships everything in Philanthropy, today?” Since I’m writing from the foundation perspective, my opinion is that it isn’t everything, but it is the most important thing. Fabulous program ideas will get you far, but a good relationship with your program officer will help move that idea forward.

A positive relationship with your program officer is hard to come by and even harder to maintain. This difficulty has nothing to do with your stunning personality or their interest in getting to know you and your organization better, it is just a byproduct of the great number of relationships that they have to maintain. Developing this relationship is important because your program officer needs to be your interpreter and advocate throughout the entire grantmaking process. These tips may not have you and your program officer braiding each others’ hair and you still may not be in their cell phone’s five favorite people but it will help make the grant process more civilized.

1) Turn in your application at least one month before the stated deadline. There is nothing that builds a good grantmaking relationship quite like an early application. Early applications give a program officer time to fully read and analyze the proposal and call with any follow-up that may be needed to make a good decision about the fit of this proposal into the foundation’s guidelines. Grant application that comes in five minutes before the deadline don’t get that personal touch. Do everyone a favor and make a fake grant calendar for yourself that gets applications in early enough to start a dialogue with the funder.
2) Don’t stretch the limits of creativity. Great grantwriters can make any program fit within the guidelines of a foundation. Fundraising for a humane society and the foundation you are prospecting only supports healthy family development? Dogs are like part of the family! Fundraising for a junior high band trip to Germany and the foundation only supports mental health programming? Vacations are the best medicine and have you ever met a junior high student that wouldn’t benefit from a little bit of therapy? This kind of creative writing only wastes valuable time that could be used cultivating a relationship with a funder that is a better fit.
3) Be honest. When asked about weaknesses in programming or audit numbers that don’t add up, be honest. Foundations don’t expect your organization to be perfect but they do want you to be able to identify and work on weaknesses. By pretending that those weaknesses don’t exist, you create a feeling of mistrust that is hard to overcome.
4) Ask for feedback on unsuccessful proposals. Getting a “no” is hard but by being dedicated to continuing a relationship you learn important things that may strengthen your next application to that foundation. Maybe your proposal was denied because they wanted to see a partnership with a local school district or maybe it was denied because they no longer fund youth development. You might also find out that the “no” was because they had run out of money for this fiscal year but if you reapplied in two months, your proposal would be a good fit.

What other tips would you give to grantseekers to develop a positive relationship with their PO?