Program Officer: Friend or Foe

The Program Officer: Friend or Foe

 The word “philanthropy” derives from the Ancient Greek phrase philanthropia, meaning “to love people.”

When you think about a foundation program officer do you imagine a benevolent professional who loves, or at least cares, about the very people who benefit from the grant awards or do you feel like program officers are all politics, pressure and power?

Would you be surprised to know that your perception and your actions have more to do with your answer than it has to do with the position of a program officer, philanthropy or foundations?

Sure, grants have changed over the past 20 years! There were far fewer foundations and their grant awards required little more than a smile and a handshake between Executive Directors and Board Chairs.

Now, foundations want more data, proposals look like business plans rather than personal letters, and foundations have program officers as seeming gatekeepers to the foundations and their formulas for grant giving. Foundations, their expectations of those seeking funding and the necessary skills for grant seeking and grant management have changed dramatically over the past 2 decades, with much of that change in recent years.

Let’s get back to YOU.

For you, the foundation program officers can be the best resource and guide for foundation funding. Really.

I know you are probably thinking that, although you admire them, program officers are unapproachable – except by those who already have funding. Quite frankly, fundraisers, grantseekers, grantees and executive directors alike fear foundation program officers.

CEP, in Luck of the Draw – Stanford Social Innovation Review, points out that the “individual program officers play a larger role in the grantees’ experience than do the foundations for which they work.” The program officer at a foundation knows precisely how decisions are made (and how they may differ from the grant guidelines). Program officers are privy to information within their organization and information about other grantseeking nonprofits.

Here is what I want you to know: There is a misconception that program officers hold all the power in the grantseeker-program officer relationship. Yes, a misconception.

 YOU have power in the grantseeker-program officer relationship.

Paul Beauet, associate director of Wilburforce Foundation, explains why strong relationships with grantees matter in the context of their foundation’s strategy for achieving impact.

(Grantees are) likely to have a much more nuanced and deeper understanding of the context for the work that needs to be done in the particular places that we care about. If we have high-quality, long-term, trust-based relationships with grantees, we believe that we’ll have better knowledge around which we can make smart investments in their organizations and programmatic capacity, helping them to achieve their outcomes more efficiently and effectively. Since our investments are initially predicated on a clear alignment between grantees’ programmatic outcomes and our own, if they can achieve their outcomes , we are confident that we will see the kind of sustained change that is consistent with our mission.”

In The Center for Effective Philanthropy’s Working with Grantees: The Keys to Success and Five Program Officers Who Exemplify Them CEP identified 4 keys to predicting strong foundation-grantee relationships:

  1. Understanding
  2. Selection
  3. Expertise
  4. Contact

Back to YOU How does this apply to you as you seek grants?

YOU have the power to help the program officer excel.

You have the power to give the program officer what they need to do their job and to make the best decisions according to their organization mission and community needs. Let’s go back to those 4 Keys to Predicting Strong Relationships.

If you want funding from a foundation you will be proactive in addressing the 4 Keys. It is your job as the potential grantee or grantee to support the 4 key elements in your relationship with program officers.

I will go into more detail in Parts 2-5 of Program Officers: Friend or Foe by focusing on each element in detail and your role in the developing a strong relationship with program officers as it relates to the 4 keys.

Briefly, let’s look at these elements again as a potential grantee.

1. Understanding – Provide the program officer with multiple opportunities to understand your organization’s goals and strategies. At the same time, find multiple opportunities to understand the foundation’s and the program officer’s values and goals.

2. Selection – Help synthesize information between published and researched data on interventions and initiatives and your experience and readiness to mobilize resources and partnerships to address a particular issue. If a foundation offers a webinar or forum for organizations interested in applying for a particular program be sure you participate.

3. Expertise – Program officers that excel are constantly learning about the communities they serve. Getting out of the office and into the community, having opportunities to ask questions, to learn about the issues, and to see programs in action are essential steps for program officers  to gain the kind of expertise needed to make informed funding decisions. Invite program officers to your community, your building, your events, and other community activities relevant to your efforts.

4. Contact – Make contact with the program officer. Maintain contact with the program officer. Each phone call or letter should set up an expectation for the next communication. Contact can be through multiple channels including letters, newsletters, emails, and social media. Make sure the program officer knows how to contact and connect with you through your organization website, G+, Facebook and or LinkedIn page(s). Provide them with social media links and calendars of events.

As a grantseeker, you have an important role in improving relationships and power dynamics between grantees and grantors. Grantmakers rely on their grantees to achieve their impact goals. Building a relationship with a grantmaker’s program officer is a win-win-win situation for your organization, for the program officer and for the funding organization.

Have you had a great experience with a high-performing program officer from a foundation or other grantmaking organization?

Please tell us about it in the comment section below. We will be featuring some grantseeker experiences in our upcoming posts in Part 2-5.

Jo from By Jo Miller, GPC of JM Grants


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