How to Dig Deeper When Talking to a Funder

You’ve done your research on potential funders. The basics -- guidelines, issue areas and grant cycles -- are understood. And after thoroughly reviewing a foundation’s website, 990s and any other background materials you can find, you’re considering an application for capacity building or programmatic support. 

The next step? Make contact and talk to the funder directly. 

Why not just go ahead, take your chances and apply? Why the extra step? Because you’re looking for any edge you can get to increase your chances of submitting a winning proposal. Here’s what can come from a brief conversation:

  • Funding priorities and focus can shift. Perspectives on issue areas evolve. You want the latest info.
  • Everything isn’t on the website including preferences, dislikes and underlying considerations.
  • Procedures are sometimes vague and confusing, and guidelines are not always written in stone. A talk can clarify their decision-making process.
  • Good practice, to see if your method of describing your project is clear, compelling and effective.
  • An opportunity to establish a relationship that extends beyond the current application.
  • Some perspective on where you stand before you apply and avoidance of an unnecessary application.
  • Valuable feedback on proposal structure, content and framing of your project’s work.
  • Funding alternatives or personal referrals to peer funders if this foundation isn’t a good fit.
  • Your passion, personality and other intangibles can come through and tip the scales in your favor. Create a favorable impression and you already have an advocate when your application arrives.

Once you’ve got a program officer on the phone, or have the chance to meet a funder in person (perhaps you’re planning to attend our upcoming Meet the Funders event?), here are a few questions to consider:

Expand on the basics

What are your current funding priorities?

Do you offer unrestricted grants or only program support?

What percentage of applications are accepted?

Do you ever hold information sessions or workshops? 

What is the size of a typical award? What is the range? Are there plans to change the award size in the near future?

Is my organization and project within your scope of interest and objectives? If there are multiple grant categories, and cycles, which would be most appropriate for my project?

Dig a little deeper

Are there areas you haven’t funded before that are emerging as areas of interest and targeted investment in the next few years?

Do you have a preference for short term vs. longer term projects?

Are new organizations eligible for funding or do you only fund more established organizations with longer track records?

Are there other considerations or preferences within your organization that we should know about? Do you like to fully fund a project or prefer to see additional funding already in place or pending?

How do you feel about organizations collaborating on a project and applying together for funding?

(For corporate funders) What do you offer beyond financial support? In kind? Volunteers? 

Understand their vision of a successful proposal

Describe a successful grant. What makes for a successful relationship with a grantee?

Can you give an example of successful grant requests that stood out from the pack and why?

What do successful proposals have in common? What rises to the top?

What can I do to increase my chances of getting a positive response from your review panel?

How involved is your board of trustees/directors in the decision process and what are they looking for in proposals?

Why do you say no?  How do worthy projects fall short?

What kind of impact and outcomes do you want to see from a project and how should results and success be measured?

No grant application is perfect. What can make the difference and get you to take that leap of faith? 

Clarify their process

Are you willing to give feedback on rejected proposals?

If my application is rejected, can I reapply and is my initial rejection held against me?

What strategies have worked well for projects who were successful after being rejected?

How are your LOI’s processed? What’s the key to a winning LOI?

How are proposals evaluated and what criteria are scored?

If you don’t normally visit applicants, would you consider coming out for a site visit if requested?

Are you open to a conversation, or giving us feedback on our LOI before we submit?

Relationship Building

What trends are you seeing in the field and within your focus areas?

What’s the best way to develop a relationship with your foundation or with others that might be a good fit?

Which research papers or reports have you read recently that captured your attention?

What work is your foundation engaged in or which grantee relationship do you find particularly exiting?

How did you come to work for this foundation? What is your background?


Phyllis Owens, a senior program director at Community Partners, has over 20 years of progressive management experience in international philanthropy, media and communications, strategic partnerships and planning.

You may also want to read: Grant Denied? Six Ways to Build from 'No' 


What?” by Véronique Debord-Lazaro