Piles of Files

I pride myself on my organizational skills and ability to bring order to chaos. Those traits saw me through undergrad while working full-time and now grad school with a similar schedule— all while trying to maintain some semblance of work-life balance. When confronted by an overwhelming array of tasks I tend to fall back on that old adage: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” This serves as a catalyst to focus my energy in the most efficient manner. But adding the cyclical duties of a program officer and all this entails (professional development workshops and industry functions) as yet another line item on my to-do list was daunting even to me. In my humble opinion, two skills are paramount to success in program work and in life—organization and time management. True, these are qualities one can learn but honestly, do you really want to add those to your to-do list as well? With each grant cycle my proposals are always in various stages of completion. Now in my third cycle, I think I have hit on a system which works well for me:

Sort: When given a proposal packet I sort through all documents to be sure the organization has included everything we require—particularly the financials. I focus on those first because I find they can give me a good overview of the organization’s fiscal health. Also, if the numbers raise a red flag I can jot down any questions I may have and ask them at my site visit.

Schedule: I now move to contacting the organization to set up a visit. I try to get on their schedule as soon as possible—spacing the visits out to maybe two to three a week— until I have gone through my entire docket. In this time frame, I always have to allow for a game of phone tag before I can pin them down to a date.

Prep: We use templates and worksheets which does make the write-ups easier. I attack the financial worksheet first as this can be the most tedious. While reading through the proposal I highlight and note anything on which I my need further clarification. Finally I found writing up a list of questions beforehand to ask during my visit allows the meeting to run smoothly.

Regroup: When I get back to the office after the site visit, I immediately note not only facts about the organization but also my thoughts and impressions. This is the basis of my recommendation or decline at the next staff meeting.

Write-ups: If the proposal has met staff approval, I can begin my final write-ups. I find it much easier to make a dent in these as soon as possible. If I still have some left after all the visits are done I can set aside a day or two later in the cycle to devote solely to this duty.

Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Believe me it took trial and error before I became comfortable with this routine. Other program officers may have their own system for attacking the mountain of files on their desk and some may actually thrive on the chaos and pressure of waiting until the deadlines. But as I watch the piles of files that inhabit my desk slowly dwindle I know another grant cycle is slowly coming to a close.

Paulette Pierre is a Program Officer intern at The Field Foundation of Illinois. She has a graduate certificate in Non-Profit Management and Philanthropy from Loyola University and is currently pursuing her MA in Interdisciplinary Studies at DePaul University