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The Tower Inquisition

Author: Megan MacDavey

A screening call? A clarification call? Which is it? WHAT is it? I just toiled over a preliminary application for you — what more could you possibly need from me??? What is this, torture? 

Hey there. Yes, you with your head on your desk. This is not a trap! We like screening calls a lot (which we have now taken to calling “clarification calls”), and we think you might too. We promise to make them as painless as possible, just keep reading.


It’s no secret that grant applications are difficult to write. Even the simplest applications feel like a trap. Some organizations have paid grant writers, others don’t have a grant writing position. Some individuals love to write, some would prefer to do almost anything else. (Those of you cleaning your desk right now instead of writing that grant, I’m talking to you.)

Clarification calls level the playing field. They give non-writers and writers alike the chance to share program details orally. They give programming staff a chance to add more color to what the grant writer wrote. They are also a chance for us to learn more about your program’s intent, development, and readiness for implementation.* And, importantly, we get to ask questions. These questions help us challenge or affirm the assumptions we make when we read your proposal.

So, last November, we started testing clarification calls for some applicants to our Core Programs and Services portfolio. These were proposals that we thought were generally strong, but wanted to learn a little more about. We were really surprised and excited by the results.

Speaking from my own experience, I recall two calls where my opinions of the grants changed considerably. One of the applications I was on the fence about, leaning toward a “no.” On the call, however, the program team was able to clearly articulate their passion, their vision, and the fit with the Foundation’s interests. I quickly moved to a “yes.” With another applicant, I went into the call firmly thinking this would be a proposal that we should clearly invite. While I was still excited about the project idea at the end of the call, it was clear that it was not well-aligned with our funding preferences, and a little
underdeveloped.** On both of these occasions, the additional information helped us make a better decision about inviting a full proposal.

FINE. If you must. At least tell me how it will work.

If you get an invitation to a call. Here’s what to expect.

  1. You have only a short window of time to assemble your team for a 30-45-minute call with us. It’s short because we want to get decisions out to everyone quickly.
  2. We really want to hear from the people who are most in touch with implementing or overseeing the project.
  3. On the call, you’ll be talking to two Program Officers. We’ll give you an overview of how many requests we received, what you can expect for the call, and the next steps.
  4. We’ll ask you questions about your grant request to help us better understand what you are proposing.
  5. Last but not least, you get to ask us questions too.

Please. For the love of all that is good, tell me what will you ask us!

We heard you in our post-application surveys (yes, we read them and thank you for your comments!); several of you have told us that you wish we could provide you with questions in advance. Unfortunately, we can’t. We work hard to make sure that all of the questions are unique to each application. There are similarities between many applications, but there are also important differences. We want to make sure our questions are specific to your application, your organization, your county, your state.

Here are some of our go-to questions:

  • Summarize the essence of your project.
  • What would you like to see as a result of it?
  • What other community partners are at the table?
  • What makes your program unique from other programs like it in the community?
  • What’s the vision for the program longer-term from a funding perspective?
  • If Tower dollars were to be ultimately unavailable to support this initiative, what effect would that have on your plans?
  • Is there anything that didn’t fit in the application that you’d like us to know?

While these are examples of questions we could ask, there are no guarantees that any or all of them will come up on your call. So, please do not spend a lot of time prepping for answers to these questions in particular. Know too that it is always also okay to say, “I don’t know.” We will give you a window of time to respond by email to any questions you weren’t sure of the answer to, or to share additional information that you forgot to mention.

Alright. If they are so amazing, why don’t you screen all the applications?

We would love to do that (other than for the clear no’s^), but time just isn’t on our side. In a typical cycle, we get somewhere around 40 core programs and services and healthy communities requests, and then another 15 or so small grants. All four of the Program Officers and the Executive Director read each of them. The 15 or so that we screen by phone take 45 minutes each, and at least as much preparation time. All this within a three-week window of when we try to notify you of whether or not we will entertain a full proposal.

Did you like your experience with a clarification call? Not a big fan?

Share a comment here about it or drop us a line:
info@thetowerfoundation.org or @towerfdn on Twitter. We love hearing from you.

* We have shortened our grant application timeline to three months (in response to years of feedback about our long previous process). This is great for getting dollars into your hands quicker, but also means we have a short window of time to work with you to co-develop a full proposal once an invitation is given. As a result, we are looking for fully baked plans for grants at the time of your preliminary grant application’s submission.

**WAIT WHAT? You declined a proposal based on what they told you on the call? Yes. Sometimes it goes this way too. In this case, we think we saved the applicant some time in developing a full proposal that may have had the plug pulled by the Program Officer half way through, or risked being declined by the Trustees.

^If you’re applying for general operating funds or to implement a program outside of our geographies, please stop, go back and read the guidelines (pdf).