“I’m calling with good news. The grant was awarded!” These conversations are a true highlight of the program staff profession. This moment is the joyful culmination of often many months of work on the part of a grantseeker, who has invested a significant amount of time and effort submitting a proposal request, and the grantmaker, who has successfully stewarded the request through the foundation’s review process. After taking time to celebrate the beginning of the partnership, it’s time to get down to business.
Setting relationship parameters upfront is helpful. How will you work together? How will you communicate, and how frequently? How will you handle potential conflicts when they arise? It would be helpful to have a clarifying conversation about these issues at the start of all of our relationships, romantic and otherwise. Alas, that’s not often the case, but it makes a lot of sense to hash this out at the beginning of a grantee/funder relationship. With the flurry of activity that often precedes the awarding of a grant (e.g., negotiating details, revising proposals and budgets) it’s easy to sail right past this step. But we do so at our peril.
In CEP’s new report, Working Well With Grantees: A Guide for Foundation Program Staff, survey results show that grantees value strong relationships with their program officers, and that these relationships color (for better or for worse) the grantees’ entire perception of and experience with the foundation. Taking the time soon after the foundation awards a grant to have an explicit conversation about how you will work together can pay dividends over the course of a grant period. Well-intentioned people can have a tough time forming a strong relationship if neither side fully understands the other’s norms, preferences, and expectations. A relationship is much more likely to be successful if both sides are honest and candid with the other, but it takes work to establish that type of trust.
Here are some pointers for the types of topics to cover in an introductory call or meeting soon after the foundation awards a grant. Not all of the topics are relevant for every program officer/grantee relationship, but by discussing them on the front end, you are working to set the relationship up for success.
Specific point person
- Both the program officer and the grantee organization need to be clear on who the primary liaison is from each organization. On the grantee side, sometimes this is a development professional, or the project director, or the executive director.
Staying in touch
- In-person interaction is usually best but not always feasible. If you’re a national funder, you have to pay even more attention to this, as you’re not going to be running into your grantee at the grocery store, and it can be easy to be “out of sight, out of mind.” Some program officers and grantees schedule regular check-in calls (e.g., monthly or quarterly), or schedule calls to discuss interim or final reports once they are submitted. In any event, both sides should share their preferences regarding emails, phone calls, frequency of contact, etc.
- Many program officers prefer setting phone appointments well in advance, as this allows the PO time to prepare for the meeting. The nonprofit organization may manage a handful of funder relationships, but it’s very likely the PO has a portfolio of 50-60 grantees. It can be tough to switch gears quickly and recall the details and context of a particular grant when the phone rings unexpectedly. Setting appointments allows the grantee to determine what they need from the funder or want to share, and for the funder to review the grant file and any prep materials the grantee sent in advance. This may be overly formal for some personal styles, but it helps you avoid frustrating long-term phone tag and allows both sides to adequately prepare for the meeting.
- The program officer should review reporting and payment dates to make sure they meet the grantees’ needs. The foundation and the grantee organization may have different fiscal years or other differences that confound easy reporting, especially financial reporting. Most foundations would be horrified to know that a grantee was twisting itself in budgetary knots to make its financial reports fit an often-arbitrary reporting schedule.
- The program officer should also clue the grantee in about the foundation’s reporting culture. Is there a reporting template or certain guidelines to follow? How much time should the grantee invest in writing the reports? How are the reports used, and who reads them? Be honest—do they just sit on a shelf, or are they a critical shared learning tool? It’s a good idea for the grantee to drop the program officer a line before a report is due to see if the template or any requirements have changed. Interim reports with contingent payments usually get reviewed much more quickly than final reports. Does either side want to discuss the reports, either before or after they are submitted?
Reach out and touch someone
- Most funders require annual grant report submission, but CEP research shows that it’s hard to have a strong relationship with contact only once per year. Grantees understandably don’t want this to be a one-way street; they want the program officer to reach out to them in equal measure.
- Both the program officer and grantee should make it known if they are open to (or encourage) “pinging” each other every once in a while more informally. There can be long periods of communication drought in between formal reporting deadlines. Grantees could send a note to share some good news, e.g., securing a new grant or the election of a new board chair. This helps keep the organization top of mind for the program officer. The program officer should be purposeful about initiating contact beyond formal compliance, such as dropping a line to ask a question about or compliment an annual report, sending a research report or news article connected to the grantee’s work, or suggesting a new idea or connection that has popped up. Grantees can feel understandably upset when funders don’t engage after the foundation awards the grant; it can make the relationship feel strictly transactional.
Invitations to engage
- As appropriate, grantees should invite the program officer to participate in activities and events, which can be celebratory or ceremonial (e.g., special fundraising events), learning opportunities (e.g., site visits or webinars), or conferences where the grantee is presenting.
- As feasible, the program officer should make an effort to attend grantees’ special events as a sign of support and respect. As appropriate, the program officer should seek out ways to engage with the grantee, e.g., making introductions to other funders, co-authoring a blog post or article, or serving on an advisory committee.
- Grantees should ask if their organization can be featured in the foundation’s e-newsletter or social media efforts. Foundation communications staff often rely on program officers to feed them story ideas about interesting things grantees are working on, and the program officer can encourage the grantee to be in touch with newsworthy updates.
- The program officer should stay tuned to the grantees’ communications vehicles, and feature them on the foundation’s various communications platforms. While impossible to keep up with the veritable flood of online content we all receive, it is helpful to sign up for Google alerts/RSS feeds and grantee e-newsletters to stay in the loop about organizational developments.
- Program officers often have access to funders-only conferences (e.g., Council on Foundations, or affinity groups like Grantmakers for Education) that grantees can only attend if they are presenting. These types of venues are valuable places for grantees to network and share their success stories, and they can get in the door only if the program officer helps open it.
- Grantees appreciate program officers that proactively make connections to the foundation’s other grantees and to other funders. But grantees should also research the foundation’s other grantees and ask for introductions and connections if there are organizations they’d like to learn more about or collaborate with.
- Experienced program officers know to expect that things will change during the grant period—staffing, the funding climate, the policy environment, budget line items, etc. Letting the grantee know upfront to stay in close touch about changing circumstances helps demonstrate that the program officer is approachable and flexible, and knows that no proposal or budget will ever work out exactly as planned.
- Grantees should keep in mind the mantra of “no surprises.” The program officer should not be the last person to find out that the organization is having financial difficulties, or that the executive director has been fired. The program officer does not want to read about these things in the newspaper, or get blindsided by a question from a board member. If there are bumps in the road, the program officer should be considered an ally and thought partner in figuring out what to do. The program officer can be a powerful advocate for the work, both internally and externally, but will only be viewed as such by the grantee if a candid and honest relationship has been built.
Relationships between grantees and program officers can be professionally and personally rewarding. There’s a powerful symbiosis and both sides are likely drawn to the work for similar reasons, and working towards the same goals. There are notable and inherent imbalances in these relationships, which is a topic worthy of additional discussion and reflection. Program officers get to pick which grantees they want to work with, but grantees don’t get to pick which program officer to work with. Complaints about program officers being unresponsive, uninterested, and reactive are unfortunately widespread. Grantees often have no platform to offer feedback except CEP’s anonymous survey, the Grantee Perception Report, and only a relatively small number of foundations administer it.
Once the excitement of the initial grant award dies down, the program officer has the chance to get the relationship off on the right foot by initiating a conversation with the grantee about how the two will work together. Taking the time to work through and articulate requirements, expectations, and personal preferences will hopefully put the relationship and, by extension—and more importantly—the work of the grant on firm footing.
Caroline Altman Smith is a senior program officer for The Kresge Foundation’s Education Program.