Through the Eyes of the Program Officer

Jennifer Glickman

The funder-grantee relationship is at the heart of our work at the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP). Over the years, we’ve learned a great deal about what — and who — contributes to these relationships. One key component of grantees’ experiences with a foundation is the program officer with whom they work, a 2007 CEP study showed. Grantees of one program officer may be having a very positive and productive experience, while grantees of a different program officer at that same foundation may be feeling frustrated and discouraged.

Yet, despite the importance of program officers in shaping grantee experiences, little research exists exploring the complex nature of the role or the perspectives of those doing the work. To help fill this void, we at CEP are releasing a new report today titled Benchmarking Program Officer Roles and Responsibilities.

This publication presents survey data collected from 150 program officers randomly selected from foundations giving at least $5 million annually. These program officers provide insight into a variety of important topics, including their backgrounds, the current areas of focus of their work, their perspectives on the funder-grantee dynamic, and their levels of satisfaction and engagement at their foundations. The majority of program officers who responded to our survey were once grantees themselves — 79 percent have previously worked at a nonprofit organization other than a foundation. Of those who have worked at a nonprofit, 71 percent were specifically involved in raising money from foundations as part of their role.

It may come as no surprise, then, that one of the main takeaways from the data is that program officers highly value the grantees with whom they work. Almost all program officers who responded to our survey — 98 percent — believe that having strong relationships with grantees is important for achieving their foundation’s goals.  Additionally, 95 percent of program officers believe that learning from the grantees with whom they work is an integral part of their professional development. This is even greater than the 77 percent who believe that learning from the colleagues at their foundations is integral to their professional development.

Program officers also want to be spending more time on these relationships. Just over half of program officers in our study believe that developing and maintaining relationships is one of the job responsibilities that should take up the greatest amount of their time. Yet, only about one-third say that developing and maintaining relationships is a responsibility that currently does take up the greatest amount of their time.

Moreover, when asked how they would spend their time with grantees if they had more time, 60 percent of program officers say they would spend their time learning more about and/or developing relationships with the grantees they support. In contrast, only 28 percent say they would spend that additional time helping grantees in technical or procedural areas, such as their strategy, evaluation, and/or capacity building.

But when looking outside of their direct grantees, the perspective of program officers changes. Only about half of program officers who responded to our survey believe that nonprofit organizations, in general, are well run. Even fewer think that nonprofit organizations are well equipped to assess their performance. Just 39 percent believe that nonprofit organizations have the knowledge necessary to assess the results of their work, and fewer than 10 percent believe that nonprofit organizations have the resources necessary to conduct such assessments.

However, it’s important to note that the program officers in our study are not placing blame on nonprofits for their lack of capacity in these areas — the majority believe these organizations are doing the best they can. About three-quarters say that nonprofits, in general, are indeed maximizing their impact given their resources.

The program officers who responded to our survey also feel confident that their foundations have the ability to make a difference in supporting these nonprofits and their causes and are committed to doing so. The vast majority of program officers — 92 percent — say a primary reason they work at their foundation is because they believe in its mission. Additionally, almost all — 96 percent — believe their foundation has a positive impact on the issue(s) or geographic area(s) in which they work.

These findings provide only a glimpse of the many takeaways that can be gleaned from the data in this new report. Our hope is that foundation leaders and program staff alike can use this information to look across the practices of their colleagues, reflect on their foundation’s own practices, and consider how to most effectively shape the program officer role.

Read the Report

Jennifer Glickman is manager, research, at CEP and part of the project team behind Benchmarking Program Officer Roles and Responsibilities. Follow her on Twitter at @JenGlickman.

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