If you’re a nonprofit leader who seeks grants from private foundations, you know what it feels like to be politely interrogated. Foundation program officers are great at asking questions of prospective grantees: Where’s your strategic plan? What’s your theory of change? Why are there three new computers in the budget? Answering those questions can feel like taking a test, but one that’s worth enduring because it might eventually result in a nice, fat check for important work.
In the midst of answering all those questions, it may feel as though there are few opportunities for asking questions of your own. You may wonder, for instance, how your work is viewed within the context of the foundation’s strategy. You might want to know what the odds are that the discussion will actually lead to funding, and when. You may be interested in knowing whether you’ll be pestered for frequent progress reports, or what will happen if work is delayed or unsuccessful. But asking those questions directly can be difficult when you feel powerless. Typically, grantseekers don’t want to raise any issues that might make them look difficult to deal with. And they may know that they’re likely to get generic, straight-off-the-homepage responses when they ask program staff about strategic alignment. All too often, conversations between prospective grantees and foundation staff leave the non-profits in the dark.
The information asymmetry between the funder and the grantseeker is problematic. Not only does the “no questions asked” dynamic reinforce power differentials, but it also limits opportunities for setting expectations appropriately on both sides of the funding equation. We have found that strong and durable relationships between a funder and a grantee are built on an open back and forth during the lifetime of a grant; this can start in the earliest conversations when prospective grantees ask some key questions.
Recognizing the natural inhibitions that grantseekers have about asking questions and the limited time available for discussion, we’re offering six practical conversation starters—questions that are easy for grantseekers to ask of program officers, easy for program officers to answer, and likely to open a dialogue that serves both sides well:
1. “How many grants/grantee relationships are you responsible for?”
Workloads vary across foundations, but in general program staff feel stretched beyond capacity by the demands made on them—or that they make on themselves. Workload is roughly a function of the number of grants, the amount of work per grant, the intensity of internal processes, and whether or not the program is undergoing strategic planning (more on this later). Asking this question signals that you understand that the program officer likely has a heavy set of responsibilities, and the responses will give you clues about what takes up most of their time. If the program officer is responsible for about 10 or 15 grantees at any one time, that suggests a relatively high level of engagement with each grantee. In contrast, program officers responsible for dozens of grantees can dedicate intensive attention to only a few at a time. Asking this question can open up a valuable discussion about frequency and type of communication, site visits, and other activities that take time and effort by both sides.
2. “What other funders do you work closely with?”
Virtually every foundation has multiple co-funding and other collaborative relationships with foundations, public sector funders, and even individual donors. Most program officers cultivate those relationships, and also understand the value they can provide to promising grantees. The answer to this question gives clues about the ways in which one funding relationship could lead to others. If your organization already receives support from one of the peer funders mentioned, for example, you can suggest people to speak with for an informal reference check. If funders you’d like to get to know better seem to be in the program officer’s network, you can make a mental note to ask for an introduction at a later date. Moreover, the response to this question can give you a sense of where the foundation sits in the larger funding ecosystem—for instance, is it more of a place-based funder, collaborating with local and regional counterparts, or more national or international in scope; is it more oriented toward funding research and evidence-based advocacy, or more interested in aligning with social movements; is it more connected to the foundations that are generations away from their founders or to those that are responsive to a “living donor.”
3. “What other nonprofit organizations or projects like mine do you fund?”
Foundations often cluster grants around particular thematic areas, and sometimes support organizations that think of themselves as competitors not only for funding but also for policy attention or field leadership. This question can open up a discussion about whether the funder is hoping for complementarity across funded work. Knowing what niche you could potentially fill for them could be valuable for proposal writing and to assess the fit to your own organizational goals. For example, if a foundation has many grantees that are implementing social programs, they may be looking for complementary skills to undertake research on the impact of those programs, or to advocate for larger scale public sector investments. (Many foundations now make information about their portfolio available on their websites, and it’s worth showing you’ve done some homework before engaging in this conversation.) A cautionary note: Avoid using this question as an opportunity to brag about how much better your work is than that of other grantees. Foundations generally like to see the organizations they work with as collaborators rather than competitors.
4. “What are the steps in grant review and approval within the foundation, and how will the grant be monitored?”
This can be a little challenging to ask, because it explicitly recognizes the limits of a program officer’s authority. But the response will help prospective grantees get a realistic sense of the complexity of internal decision-making. If it’s clear that there are multiple approval steps, then the program officer will have to prepare summary documents for each one, abstracting information from the proposal. The answer to the question, then, provides a chance for you to ask how to write the proposal so that it’s easy to use for these purposes—an offer that serves both sides. As importantly, if the relationship does proceed to a first round of funding, knowing the internal procedures helps set the stage for a well-timed renewal request and to finding ways to inform and engage higher levels within the foundation (always with the agreement of your program officer). Getting a sense of how a grant is monitored once issued could provide useful information about what the program officer will be looking for as a measure of success and how to best communicate challenges if the project does not turn out as planned.
5. “Would it be helpful to develop a ‘modular’ budget?”
One of the most important things for a prospective grantee to know is how much money is on the table, yet this can also be the hardest information to get. Program officers may themselves not have a fixed amount in mind, because they are balancing potential investments across multiple organizations, waiting to make a final determination until all the options are known. They may also be reluctant to share the information they do have about grant size because they may want proposal budgets to come in at the lowest possible dollar value. A relatively easy way to open this discussion is to ask whether it makes sense to develop a budget that has a low, medium, and high variant, corresponding to different levels of effort and duration. For instance, a grantee could propose an 18-month project and a 36-month project, or a pilot test or a more scaled-up intervention. By offering to prepare a modular budget, you’re indicating that you’re prepared to give the program officer a range of options from which to choose—but emphasizing that there’s a strong relationship between how much is available and what can be accomplished.
6. “When was the current strategy last updated?”
If you’re working with a foundation that engages in some form of strategic philanthropy, you can be assured that there will be episodic updates, and those can disrupt existing relationships and create space for new ones. This question is a helpful entry point into understanding how the program officer views your work in the context of the foundation’s larger strategic ambitions. If you learn that the strategy has been updated relatively recently, you can ask for more details about how the grant under discussion reflects that new thinking. If, on the other hand, the strategy has been in place in its current form for five years or more or there has been a change in leadership in the foundation, there’s a strong likelihood that a “refresh” is in the offing. Listen for clues about whether the program officer is seeing the pending grant as squarely within the existing strategy or setting the stage for change.
We wish we lived in a world where funders and grantseekers could have open, candid, in-depth discussions about all matters of mutual interest. We do not live in that world. In an effort to get just a little bit closer, though, we suggest that nonprofit leaders try asking these questions. You might be surprised how much you’ll learn.
If you’ve found some questions that are particularly useful in these conversations, use Comments to share the wisdom with others.