Advice to Those New to the Foundation Field

I have just completed my first year as a program officer at a community foundation. Being a new Foundation staff member is really uncharted territory. There isn’t a handbook that tells you how to be an effective program officer and everyone seems to approach his or her position from a different perspective. I’ve made it my personal mission to try to demystify the foundation field for new foundation staff, prospective foundation staff, grant seekers, and most importantly for myself. In that vein, I have developed 6 pieces of advice for those new to the field that I hope makes your entrance into the foundation field a little less hazy.

  1. Don’t believe the hype- Positions at foundations are few and far between. There was probably a very talented applicant pool for your position and you must be very intelligent and knowledgeable about the nonprofit sector since you were chosen for your position. With that said I can pretty much guarantee that you are not as smart, funny, or as handsome (or pretty) as nonprofit and foundation staff alike may have you believe. Your program ideas are not suddenly brilliant, you are just sharing these ideas with a captive audience. False flattery is an unfortunate by-product of being in a position where you can make decisions about large amounts of money. You can handle this newfound access to wealth with grace and wisdom or you can act like a lottery winner. Please choose wisely.
  2. Treat grantees with the respect and reverence that they deserve- You get to spend your days with grantees and possible grantees that are the best and brightest of the nonprofit sector. They would make a lot more money if they used their immense talents working in the for profit sector but they are so passionate about the mission of their organizations that they choose to work for. Count yourself among the lucky few that get to spend most of your workday with passionate, idealistic people.
  3. Expand your professional network- The best ideas come from having a diverse professional network of people that have different opinions and experiences than you do. Join an affinity group of a different racial group, program area, or geographic interest to learn new approaches to issues that you face in your position.
  4. Get some support- This may be a circle of friends that you can bounce ideas off of, an affinity group like Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy, which is designed to provide support and guidance to people new to the field of philanthropy, or a kickball team, where you can burn off some of the stress of your position. Figure out what kind of support would work the best for you and seek it out. If you can’t find that network of support, create your own.
  5. Never stop learning- The nonprofits that you interact with depend on your access to best practices in the field to improve their own work. Thoroughly read the reports from previous grantees. Are there lessons learned that might be applicable to other organizations that you are working with? Then share that information, within the limits of confidentiality. Scrupulously read about areas that your foundation makes grants in. Read about cities or states with similar demographics as your foundation’s geographic area. Are there any best practices from other locations that might be useful for the work that your foundation or grantees are doing?
  6. Extend your hand to those that are interested in the field- When you were thinking about entering the field of philanthropy you either had a wonderful mentor that guided you through the process or you wish that you had. Be that mentor to someone else. There are many students and professionals that just need a few minutes of your time to figure out if the foundation field is a good fit for them. Be open to informational interviews, speaking at sessions about the work of program officers, or being a mentor informally or through a program at your alma mater. You may have also noticed that since you have entered the field you now know about position opening that you never would have heard about when you weren’t in the field. Share those opportunities with your network of people that are interested in starting a career in philanthropy.

Now it’s your turn. What advice would you give to new foundation staff?