What Does a Program Officer Do?

In this philanthropy job series I'll cover that a program officer does. When I was a fundraiser and wanted to work in philanthropy, I thought that program officer's had 5-10 organizations that they worked with over a number of years. I thought I'd learn about organizations inside and out and help them make the world a better place. What really happened is that I had more than a hundred organizations (current grantees, applicants, former organizations, and organizations doing similar work) that I needed to understand on the most basic level. Most of my time was spent telling great people and organizations that we would not be funding them and managing the avalanche of paperwork that followed those that we could fund. All of that being said, I think being a program officer is one of the most exciting and fulfilling jobs in the social sector.  There are three main phases of work for the program officer: Eyes & Ears, Brain & Heart, and Hands & Feet.

Eyes & Ears: This phase of work is filled with spending time in your community to develop relationships, doing informational calls with prospective grantees, and identifying organizations to encourage to apply during the grant process. The amount of time that you spend doing these things varies widely depending on your foundation. Some foundations are so understaffed that they don't do this type of outreach. Other foundations may spend years on this type of work as they develop a grantmaking program.

Brain & Heart: This phase is where the big paperwork and analysis begins. In this phase you receive letters of inquiry and applications (depending on the foundation and the narrowness of its guidelines this could be a few dozen or hundreds of applications). Your role is to determine if the applications fit the guidelines and if the organization has the capacity to undertake the work that they have described. Later in the process you might do site visits, outside research, or interviews with community stakeholders. You will then write up a summary of the applications to the foundation's board. In this phase you will give a lot of bad news. Many organizations won't get funding and a good program officer learns how to give that bad news in a way that honors the work of the nonprofit and offers suggestion to improve the program or find a foundation where the work is a better fit.

Hands & Feet: This part of the work is about being an ambassador for that organization to your board and in the community. You are their voice in the board room (either verbally or written) and you are the person that needs to be able to answer any questions that the board has. If the organization is funded, you communicate any expectations that your foundation has (reports, outcomes, publicity) and help the organization navigate grant agreements, evaluation frameworks, or required convenings that your foundation hosts.  You can also connect those grantees with colleagues at other foundations that may be interested in their work.

I lay out this description of a program officer's job not because I feel like this is how the grantee/grantor relationship should be but because I want you to know what you are getting into if you pursue a career in philanthropy. There is a lot of work to be done to reduce the amount of paperwork in foundations, increase foundation's transparency and better train program officers and if you become a foundation staff member, I hope that you will take on those causes as seriously as you take on evaluating the work of nonprofits.

If you work as a program officer, what parts of your job do you love, which do you hate?