Engaging with Program Officers

When we held the GradFund Fall Conference in September, one of the most popular panels featured program officers from a variety of foundations who shared advice and insights from the program officer’s perspective. The most agreed upon advice? Contact the program officer early, and contact them often.
People seem reluctant to take this advice. They seem worried the program officer will be annoyed, or tell them not to apply, or that the questions will come off as dumb or uninformed. Contacting the program officer should be a routine part of any fellowship application, and this post will walk you through some of the finer points of engaging with a program officer.
As we point out in a previous post, many funders are trying to build a community of scholars. This means taking seriously the relationship you build with the funder before your application is even submitted. Some awards require or strongly advise you to establish a relationship with the institution before hand, particularly postdoctoral awards and archival awards. If you are applying to be in residence, you need the people who will be working with you to vouch for you.
Before you contact the program officer, do your homework – have thoughtful questions, know the background of the program officer, and know the types of projects the organization has funded over the past few years. Read everything you can. Funders often have a board of directors or a foundation that help to set the funding priorities and the research trajectory of the institution.
Before you call, thoroughly review all of the information on the website – make sure you aren’t asking for something that can be easily found in the application materials online. Jot down a list of all of your questions and follow up questions. Even if the website doesn’t answer your question, it helps to be able to say “I have a follow up question to what I read on your website.” When you are ready to get in touch, it’s a good idea to set up a time to talk that works for both of you. Send a short email quickly explaining why you want to talk, and ask if you can schedule a time to talk on the phone, or if they prefer email. Often attaching a brief summary of your proposal will help the program officer orient their feedback and advice.
Talking to the program officer can give you a sense of how the organization envisions itself – the types of awards it wants to make, and any subtle shifts that are happening. That said, program officers are busy people, so don’t call just to chat – have serious questions they can help you answer.
Finally, don’t be afraid to ask the questions you most want advice on – “does my research seem like a good fit with your organization?” and “what do I need to do to be a good candidate for this award?” Program officers may say no, but could also direct you to another funder you hadn’t thought of – one that might be a better fit for your interests.

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