Speaking with a funder can be an effective way to find out if your project is a good fit for a funding opportunity, to learn about existing and upcoming opportunities, or to understand new funding priorities. Your primary point of contact with a funder, whether a federal agency or a foundation, is typically a program officer (PO). These officials have a direct role in shaping funding priorities and often are involved in award decision-making; they can give you the most detailed information about an RFP. If they cannot advise you, they often can redirect you to someone who will have more information.
Start by identifying an appropriate PO or point of contact through the RFP or funder websites. For federal grants, the notice of funding opportunity, program solicitation, or similar documents will list cognizant program staff and contact information. If such information is not available, or if you are not yet pursuing a specific funding opportunity, look for chances to meet POs at conferences or at regional meetings. Many will make themselves available to speak with potential applicants, and some funders have dedicated events, such as the annual NSF Grants Conference or the National Humanities Conference.
When preparing to speak with a funder, prepare a one-page abstract about the work you hope to conduct. Be detailed but concise, and make sure that your abstract is tailored to the specific funder or opportunity. It is helpful to share this with the PO in advance, to give them context before your meeting. If you are leading a collaborative project, it may be appropriate to include team members, but the primary point of contact should be the PI who will lead the project.
What to Ask
Plan out a few topics that you would like to explore before your conversation. Although you may want to ask up front whether or not a funder can support your project, that is not usually a decision that can be made on the spot. Instead, use the interaction as a chance to:
- Discuss the emphases of your research, the work you hope the funder may support, and how this fits into their current funding priorities;
- Determine if the work you want to do is eligible to be supported by a funder’s current programs; explore ways you can most effectively present the significance of the work given the funder’s mission and mandate;
- Find out if there are any special initiatives or priorities that may affect your project’s chances of receiving funding (given the active discourse around diversity and inclusion, anti-black racism, and presidential transition, many funders are announcing or planning new initiatives);
- Find out what the proposal evaluation criteria are (if they are not listed in the program documents), and ask how the funder considers the criteria in evaluating proposals and making award decisions;
- Get a clear idea of how proposals are reviewed (remember that the reviewers are the primary audience of your proposal), and find out what role program staff play in the decision process;
- Learn about additional programs or funding streams that may support your work, at the current funder or others (POs will often know about other funding sources that support similar work).
Build a Relationship
Every interaction with a funder, as Holly Falk-Krzesinski, PhD, puts it, is a chance to “build advocacy.” These are valuable chances to present your work professionally and ensure that the funder has the best understanding of what you are trying to do. POs are often called upon to explain how a proposed project will advance the mission of the funder, and even one or two interactions can offer chances to help them see how your work may do this. In other words, every meeting with a funder is a chance to cultivate a relationship and to increase the chances that your research may be funded.
There are many resources on related topics. Here’s a few additional pieces of advice:
- The Foundation Center offers advice in its knowledge base specifically geared toward reaching out to program officers at foundations.
- Christie George offers “Six Rules for Reaching Out to Funders.”
- Beth Kiely (University of Texas at Dallas) offers some specific suggestions on how to construct your email in “How to Contact Program Officers.”
For more of my advice on pursuing grant funding, check out the “Research Enhancement” category.