Foundation Program Officers: Let’s Take a Deeper Dive (Part 1 of 2)

About 8-9 years ago, I really wanted to work for a foundation. I had a lengthy history in the nonprofit sector, some of which included grantmaking to other qualified organizations. Rather than asking for money, I longed to be on the other side. I wanted to make smart investments in the community, and I wanted to challenge nonprofits with tough questions – the ones that I knew how to deflect as a nonprofit Executive Director. (No – I didn’t want to play “hardball” or be “mean.” I just wanted to make sure that the investments were ones that would have a lasting impact.)

One of my good friends talked me out of it, claiming that I’m not cut out to work for any one entity as I would likely start to get bored (and/or feel stifled). He pushed me towards consulting. And thank goodness he did! I love the variety of my projects – including the privilege to work with foundations. 


Given my respect for foundations, I was eager to read The Center for Effective Philanthropy’s (CEP) recent report: “Benchmarking: Program Officer Roles & Responsibilities.” The report points out that those folks outside of a foundation know little about the role of the program officer. I was eager to see what CEP discovered.

I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed. The information they shared was a good start, but much of it is already known: there is little turnover in the grantmaking world; most participants have master’s or bachelor’s degrees; and many have experience in the nonprofit sector. Far too many are white. I laughed when I saw that 88% of program officers said that they believe their grantees feel comfortable approaching them if a problem arises. From experience, I know that it’s necessary to inform a program officer when there is a problem, but there are often multiple internal conversations about how to phrase it, what words to use, how to reassure the program officer about the ability of the organization to do the work, etc. Thus, it’s not really that grantees are comfortable telling their program officers if there is a problem; grantees know that they have to do it to maintain the relationship if there is any hope of future funding.

What was disappointing is that only 53% of the program officers surveyed feel that they have the knowledge necessary to help their grantees assess the results of their work. If that is the case, then why are nonprofits bending over backwards to track data and submit reports? I hope that those program officers have access to other resources to help with the assessments. It’s also alarming that only 54% of the responding program officers feel that nonprofit organizations are well-run. I can only hope that the program officers who do not see well-run organizations are in a decision-making position to stop investing in those nonprofits.

It’s also fascinating that only 28% of the respondents indicated that they would spend any additional time helping grantees in technical or procedural areas, such as strategy, evaluation and/or capacity building. While I certainly understand that program officers have limited capacity, like everybody else, they can also play an integral role in helping nonprofit leaders pull their heads up from the weeds and see a different perspective.

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