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?

New Year, New Philanthropy Job?

*Note: It is a common misconception that philanthropy jobs look like this, be prepared for piles of paper and no private jet.

I've heard from many of my recruiter friends that January is a prime time for organizations to start searches because people often make New Year's resoultions to get a new job. If you have a resolution to get a job in the philanthropic field, here are a few pieces of advice to help you on your journey:

Develop Expertise: Lots of foundations (especially community foundations or unstaffed foundations) need volunteers to help them make grantmaking decisions. Volunteer your services and build some expertise in grantmaking.  As Rosetta Thurman says "don't volunteer for free", get some new skills out of it.

Build a Strong Network: While you are volunteering, build your network. Use that foot in the door to attend philanthropy conferences or foundation briefings. I got my first volunteer opportunity in philanthropy by sneaking into a Joint Affinity Group meeting. A funder that I knew saw me there and asked me if I was interested in being on one of their grant review committees, that led to consulting work with that foundation, and then to a job there as a program officer. (Check out my post "So you wanna be a Program Officer" for more tips on how to get a job reviewing grants)

Brand Yourself: Different foundations have different brands, for example academic, community-focused, cutting edge, or stuffy. Find a foundation that aligns with your personal brand and make sure that your resume and cover letter highlight your brand.

Take the Leap: It is easy to psyc yourself out and not apply for your dream philanthropy job. Sometimes you have to suck it up and take a chance. If you want to make a difference through grantmaking, prepare and be willing to take the leap.