Specialist or Generalist

Which would you rather be: A mile wide and a foot deep or a foot wide and a mile deep?  Put another way, would you rather possess a breadth of knowledge across content areas or a depth of knowledge in a particular field?  A friend posed this question to me not long ago as I embarked on my philanthropic career path.  At the time I was wavering between whether it made more sense to specialize in a certain content area (economic development or arts and culture, for example) to perhaps make myself more marketable to a foundation or remain open to gaining knowledge in all of the social areas foundations fund. My decision could dictate my course of study going forward.


Perhaps my dilemma is emblematic of what we as a society are going through domestically and globally.  I can see the pros and cons of both sides.  With more interest in the “greening” of everything, the healthcare system being burdened over the next few decades and endemic diseases abroad and their global implications, large foundations with a heavy focus in these areas need experts who can step in and hit the ground running. This also applies to local foundations with a heavy focus on education, the arts or human services.  Bringing to the table a depth of knowledge and credentials as a former educator, an MFA graduate or even a licensed social worker, serves an individual well as a program officer.


But there is something to be said for being a generalist.  This suggests flexibility, adaptability and the willingness to learn a little about all social and community issues. In my current role, I am a generalist in that I have funded organizations which run the gamut of causes.  This has forced me to learn about each area that I fund.  Trust me, I have learned more about health issues, community organizing, arts education programs and social justice issues than I ever thought possible.  I am by no means an expert in any of these areas but by doing a little research and being exposed to these issues, I can now go into a site visit armed with information. This knowledge allows me to frame the questions to that particular grantee and sound intelligent doing so.


I must admit I enjoy being a generalist because my goal is to move into corporate philanthropy.  In this context, corporate giving programs cover many content areas. Remaining with my current public service and sociology course of study along with my year-long program officer experience will be more useful to my end goal.  I would hope having knowledge and exposure to myriad social issues would make me a more effective and valuable asset to any company. 



If you are a program officer or even a grantee, which do you think is better? I would be interested in hearing other points of view.


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.