So You Wanna Be Program Officer?

I have a few pieces of standard advice that I give to friends that are applying to program officer positions, so I thought I'd share the same advice with you, my virtual friends. Program officer positions rarely come open, especially now with so many foundations downsizing, so it is important that you do what you can to stand out.

  • Don't ask, don't tell policy for your age- If you are a younger applicant, please take your graduation date off of your resume. Regardless of how much relevant experience you have, many hiring managers will write you off as a youngster if your undergraduate or graduate degree was received after Y2K.
  • Work your networks- If you used to nanny for the board chair or you were in Americorps with one of the program assistants, make sure you talk to that person before you apply and mention that they encouraged you to apply in the cover letter. There is nothing that gives you an easier edge than name dropping. It won't get you the job but it will make the HR person that is going through 300 applicants take a second look.
  • Know your target- Get to know the culture of the foundation from your previous interactions with them in the community or through a thorough read of the website. Do the grantees fit your values, do you believe in the mission, do you respect the reputation of the other staff? Make sure it is a fit before applying and if it is a fit with your values and experience, explain why in the cover letter.
  • Know the job- Is the foundation looking for a generalist that can analyze a variety of nonprofits? Then highlight your analytical skills and expertise across the field. Are they looking for a content expert? Then it's time to put that oceanology degree to work.
  • Be timely- If you are interested in a position, don't play hard to get and wait until the last day to apply. Many foundations start screening applications a week or two after the position is posted. They may already have a favorite candidate if you wait until the last minute.
  • Don't sell yourself short- Many people see their dream job and don't apply because they are sure that they don't have a chance.  Even if it seems like there will be most experienced applicants, you might just have the mix of education, personality, and experience the foundation is looking for. You miss 100% of the shots you don't make.

What other advice would you give to someone applying for a program officer position?