by Allen Smart, Rural Philanthropy Advocate. @allensmart6

A primary goal of GrantAdvisor is to ensure grantseekers have the information they need to succeed in their grantseeking. The GrantAdvisor team is thrilled to host Allen Smart as a guest blogger. Allen has spent over 25 years working inside the walls of public and private philanthropy and writes and presents frequently on the challenges of matching funder behavior with public strategy. He is passionate about best practice in rural philanthropy and has lived and worked in rural America for most of his career. His family roots are in Aroostook County Maine.

GrantAdvisor’s feature on New ideas for funder stewardship was a great framing for many of the technical and relational aspects of funder management from the nonprofit perspective. I was particularly taken with the articulation of the roles and tactics in association with the foundation program, communication, executive director and board member roles – roles that aren’t always well understood in the nonprofit world—particularly as they may vary so decidedly from one funder to the next.

For many grantseekers, the key contact with the prospective funder is the program officer (or director).  Program officers play different roles internal and external to their organizations based upon a few key archetypes. Understanding what type of program officer you’re working with can help you better invest your time and build stronger relationships. See where your program contact fits in this taxonomy through a rural grantseeking lens.

Program Officer Archetypes

The Strategy Commander: This is often someone at a senior program level who is charged with messaging where the funder may or may not be going in the future. Often they have a small grantee portfolio and pass your ideas onto lower level staff. Don’t misinterpret their agreement or acknowledgment as particularly meaningful. After all, they don’t have to work you through the process. What you might hear though is how the funder is working towards scale with evidence-based work, a strategy that is not in your favor as a rural grantseeker.

The Literalist: This is someone working for a foundation where the ideal is a distanced engagement built around the language they have been trained to use and the boxes they need to check for internal affirmation. Getting off script from their cues is not encouraged for them or you. If it’s consistent with your mission/values, fit yourself into their box and repeat their language back to them. Your rural context is less of a problem here.

The Single Issue Circulator: No matter what your challenge – early childhood, food access, immunization rates, or economic development – the program staffer will inevitably bring the questioning back to their favorite issue. Start talking about senior centers, and the focus becomes foster care. Start talking about job loss, and the focus becomes middle school math curricula. Start talking about rural affordable housing, and the focus becomes historic preservation. It’s important to be able to think on your feet and acknowledge what might seem far-fetched connections between your ideas and the program officer’s interests. Follow-up and show an example or two on how you took their inquiries seriously and are working on incorporating into your work.

The Know-it-All: No matter what you present they will try and make sure that you know they know more than you do – even if they have never actually worked on your topic. A variation is the foundation program staffer who has come to believe that if they didn’t think of it – it’s probably not important. Pick up on their rural beliefs – don’t counter them directly – but instead stay on message about the opportunity for innovation and learning that your effort presents and make your ideas seem like theirs!

YDKHBIA (You Don’t Know How Busy I Am): The staffer needs you to fully understand that their job is undoable. They have been up for a week straight and the lay person just doesn’t understand how difficult foundation work can be. Take a pass if you can!

The Confusing Cheerleader: “All prospective applicants are great. We love what you are doing. The need and strategy are tremendous but…  (1) We don’t have enough money, (2) I would fund you but my foundation won’t, (3) We will need more data from you (although we aren’t interested in funding the data collection).” This is a very difficult scenario for rural place-based grant seekers and funders. Working with this archetype may require finding entry points with more senior leadership or board members.

The Pass-through: The staffer presents themselves as information collectors – often on a learning journey – that they will take back and discuss with their colleagues. Help them simplify your message into talking points on your behalf. Train them to be a rural expert.

The Program Officer of the 21st century: They are present in both mind and body. They encourage inquiry and practice active listening. They ask challenging but respectful questions. You know where you stand with respect to your idea and, importantly, the work isn’t framed by grantseeking/grantmaking but by mutual problem solving. It is a combination of art and science. While training can support skills development towards achieving this recognition, there are people who are clearly more suited for this role than others.

How can you help you and your program officer have an ongoing relationship?

Here are a few ideas:

  • Know your issue landscape. Know who else does work similar or relevant to yours in your region. Know what else your prospective funder may be supporting that is similar to the work you are suggesting and offer to learn from their current grantees.
  • Show up where you know they will be and ask them about something they have recently written or presented.
  • Turn those lengthy proposals into one-page outlines with Goals, Objectives, and Basic Budgets.
  • Send them blogs, articles, and other brief information on topics where you know they have already expressed an interest.
  • Offer to serve as a rural connector, sounding board, and local convener – especially when your self-interest is not dominant.

I hope that this look at the dynamics of foundation program staff and nonprofits is helpful in your grantseeking pursuits. Moreover, I trust that some of this piece encourages you to play an important role in shaping and understanding your funder interactions. Foundations have their own language and codes, and it is best to try to understand their worlds in the same way you are asking them to understand yours.