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Being a Foundation Program Officer

Posted on February 23, 2018

The current report from the Middle for Efficient Philanthropy, Relationships Matter: Program Officers, Grantees, and the Keys to Success speaks to the necessary position of program employees in the relationship between the funder and the organizations they help.

On this blog publish,  Vuyiswa Sidzumo shares her perspective on the challenges and rewards in working as a part of a foundation’s grantmaking program employees.

The Dilemmas, Contradictions, and Excitements of a Foundation Program Officer

Let me start by stating the apparent. I really like being a foundation program officer. I’ve labored for personal foundations for nearly 13 years, and it has been a blast. Not solely has it given me the privilege to help a few of the greatest, brightest, and dedicated individuals in the social change area, nevertheless it has taught me humility, endurance, and the power to see the bigger picture.

“Support” is an deliberately loaded phrase in this context. The first half is recommending financial help to organizations, however equally necessary are the relationships shaped with establishments, which frequently require my expertise, information, and expertise, and access to my networks. These are the contradictions that have led me to this reflection.

When individuals speak about personal foundation program officers, the default is to speak concerning the energy relations that always play out, real or perceived. I don’t for a moment doubt that energy is a matter in some relationships. But I feel what is usually lost in these conversations are the deep relationships that, in my expertise, develop between basis program officers and grantee organizations. What can also be lacking in these conversations are the dilemmas and contradictions that foundation program officers typically face in not only being responsible stewards of other individuals’s money but social change agents who also have an agenda for individuals’s lives to improve. How this plays out in real-life is an fascinating mix of experiences.

If I look back at the past 12 years of being a program officer, I can safely say that I might have gone insane if I reacted to each criticism. This doesn’t recommend that I am thick-skinned, however my expertise has taught me that crucial thing to do as a program officer is to develop deep and trusting relationships with grantees, and the remaining typically follows. This is, nevertheless, simpler stated than executed. In a perfect world, program officers ought to have a manageable variety of grants to allow them to type these relationships and to contribute meaningfully and thoughtfully to the work of partners. In the actual world, program officers typically handle many grants (which can be a bonus), and it is typically troublesome to dedicate enough time to nurture relationships.

When deep relationships are shaped, as I’ve found in my expertise, it’s typically easier to determine the nature of help that a corporation requires from a basis program officer. Some organizations favor a hands-off strategy, whereas others respect the information of program officers and discover it helpful for his or her work and the growth of their organizations. The relationships are often complicated, and it’s subsequently troublesome and unfair to guage program officers and accuse them of interfering in organizations’ affairs if there isn’t a real understanding of these relationships and what’s valued by both celebration. The problem is that these relationships are often not specific, but are nuanced and fluid. As a program officer, I’ve typically discovered myself in these dilemmas. I’ve typically refused to take part in organizations’ strategic planning processes, as I’ve felt that I can’t be referee and participant on the similar time. However when organizations genuinely recognize these inputs, is it truthful for me to turn them down? Am I a spoilsport or a accountable steward in these circumstances? My view is that the answer is somewhere in-between.

A collection of occasions have left me pondering on the perfect position of basis program officers. Through the years, I’ve interacted with several organizations which have essential social issues to deal with, however weak leadership that compromised their capacity to understand their goals. In a few situations where issues went flawed, the organizations had administrators who weren’t the proper match for the establishments, and ineffective boards that have been sadly not capable of deal decisively with the issue, even when warning signs have been there. This led to the reversal of good points that these organizations had remodeled long durations of time and lack of belief from key stakeholders. In these situations, this sadly compromised the power of these institutions to deliver on their mandates, and funders voted with their ft. As one colleague put it, moderately than dealing with the elephant in the room, individuals in these organizations have been “killing each other with kindness”. As part of due diligence, it is my obligation to pronounce on the power of a corporation to satisfy its said promise, yet these experiences have left me drained and compelled me to query my position within the value chain of social change. I could not, with a clear conscience, encourage for additional help to these institutions. As somebody who isn’t solely a foundation worker but can also be based mostly in my nation of origin, with a deeply vested curiosity in good and successful packages and organizations, this has been onerous.

Regardless of my relationships with grantee organizations, I feel strongly that it isn’t my enterprise to find out who they hire and hearth. Nevertheless, I’m duty-bound to assess danger. In these instances, I felt an obligation to speak my considerations to the boards of those organizations, while not telling them what to do. My obligation was to inform them that with the apparent dangers, I couldn’t encourage for further help. This, nevertheless, did not stop the little voice in my head that stated whatever I needed to consider, these conversations held a lot of power. As the foundations I’ve worked for are among the many largest funders of those organizations, I felt I was pushing the boards towards brick walls. Yet, what selection did I’ve? In some instances, the administrators stayed and ultimately left when funds dried up. In a unusual and probably twisted means, their refusal to take a hint made me feel higher. I had not pushed the individuals away, but I had also made the troublesome but needed choice to do what I assumed was greatest for my foundations. I had maintained my good relationships with the boards and even the individuals involved by taking them into my confidence and expressing my considerations, as they deserved a respectable rationalization about why my foundations couldn’t continue to help them. They appreciated my inputs, but might not have agreed with me. In these instances, events that adopted confirmed that I used to be justified to be concerned.

In these instances, I felt it was essential to be open and clear with the organizations. The deep relationships that had been shaped through the years made this attainable, nevertheless it did not make my job of conveying the dangerous news any easier. These are often my contradictions as a foundation program officer. How far do I’m going and how far can I’m going? What about my own want and keenness for social change? Do I put that aside even when organizations look like failing the very communities they purport to serve? Do I hold quiet once I observe dysfunctionality in organizations? I don’t assume so, yet that doesn’t make me feel any better when individuals depart organizations and even lose their jobs.

I feel extra healthy conversations between foundation employees and grantee organizations about these complicated roles are mandatory. I don’t have areas where I can speak to a group of people that get it, each from the inspiration and nonprofit organization world. I don’t assume that is a dialog that basis program officers should have on their own (as is usually the case), but I feel there ought to be extra conversations between basis program officers and grantee representatives about enjoying this nice line as delicately and effectively as attainable. I don’t assume we’ll ever get it utterly right in each instance, but it’s one thing value investing in and being acutely aware of. Contrary to fashionable perception, most basis program officers are usually not people who find themselves energy hungry and are out to make individuals’s lives depressing, however additionally they should assess dangers for their organizations and make sure that influence is achieved. In my position as a program officer, I additionally attempt, in the easiest way attainable, to guard the interests of beneficiaries by asking the appropriate questions. As we all know, beneficiaries typically haven’t any say in how packages are designed, and the way organizations decide priorities for them. A dialog concerning the energy relations between nonprofit organizations and beneficiaries is one other that deserves consideration, however that’s a matter for an additional day.

In summary and to be true to the subject, that is my take:

  • Dilemmas – how far can I’m going in being supportive to work of organizations when issues are usually not going proper? In instances where the issues relate to techniques and employees challenges not on the prime, the conversation tends to be simpler. Organizations welcome help from foundations, and work arduous to realign their establishments to maximise impression. When the challenges are on the prime, the conversations are harder and tough, and sometimes require making troublesome but crucial decisions.
  • Contradictions – how do you keep true to your foundation’s objective and your personal obligations to evaluate and manage danger, while also probably destabilizing establishments by being trustworthy? For program officers, that is a troublesome stability, but one which we’ve no selection but to play. We must accept that in these instances, we might be blamed for unequal energy relations.
    • Excitements – wholesome relationships between program officers and grantee organizations are exciting and may be powerful. They help strengthen establishments and sometimes lead to sustained social change. Typically these relationships require maturity and a good chemistry. When there are modifications at both establishment, this typically sets the clock again as new relationships have to be shaped. When program officers understand the organizations, they are supportive, sympathetic in occasions of change, and have a deep understanding of the issues. They are also capable of exercise the endurance and adaptability typically required in realizing social change.

Even with all these challenges, I nonetheless love being a foundation program officer. I all the time attempt to be respectful, patient, understanding, and versatile. I additionally all the time have to be alert, cautious, questioning, knowledgeable and related not only to the organizations however the fields I work in. It continues to be an exciting area for me, and whereas I’ll never attain perfection, I do my greatest to attempt for it.

Vuyiswa Sidzumo is a Program Officer in the Ford Foundation South Africa Office and Chair of the Africa Grantmakers’ Affinity Group Steering Committee.