Term Limits for Program Officers Could Be Beneficial

I had never heard of a foundation imposing “term limits” for their program officers, but I love the idea of it! And I’m impressed that the Hewlett Foundation has taken that step. It’s an important one.

Before I even read this article, I thought about the impact of term limits for program officers. The majority of the program officers I know have been in their positions for years – some for well over a decade. Truly, who can blame them? It’s a remarkable position in which you get to make investments to strengthen our communities. You get to “do good” without having to fundraise and, for the most part, foundations have access to resources that the typical social service nonprofit does not. It sounds pretty good to me!

At the same time, I also believe that program officers who stay in their positions for too long can develop an implicit bias. If you’re working with the same organizations over a period of years, it is easier to become – without intent – complacent. You may be less likely to ask the harder questions. You build relationships with the grantees and even consider some of them friends. It makes the job more fun, but it’s not necessarily the smartest thing to do.

It is a best practice in the accounting industry for companies to bid for new auditors every few years. It makes sense to have someone new come in and review the financials with a fresh – and skeptical – eye. It was an accepted practice in the field. As a former CPA, I was used to seeing clients come and go.

I think more foundations should follow in Hewlett’s footsteps and set term limits for program officers. I’m not sure what the downside would be. My big question is: what is the right amount of time for the term limit? Hewlett set their term limit for 8 years. I’m not sure if that is the right amount of time, but it is a good start.

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