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How-to Library • Featuring articles from past issues of Contributions

The Lowdown on Program Officers
by Martin Teitel

Much of the attention that we pay to the grant seeking process is understandably about getting in the door. Once we’re there, then what? Let’s have a look at the complicated relationship between people trying to get funded and those whose job it is to help them.

Most grantees never meet the people who decide the fate of their funding request – the foundation’s board. If their application for a grant survives the screening process, they will interact with a program officer. Two powerful myths contaminate the relationship between grant seekers and program officers: “Program officers don’t care,” and “Program officers think they’re experts, and they’re not.” Let’s look into these stories to see if we can help the critical grantee-program officer link work better.

I think the problem is less that grant makers don’t care – it’s more what we care about.
When I go to funder meetings, I’m continually reminded that program officers are a most disparate group, ranging from flinty Ford Foundation PhD’s between books to young liberal arts graduates from petite family trusts.

of related interest

OF RELATED INTEREST: In Thank You for Submitting Your Proposal, Martin Teitel, the ultimate insider and head of a foundation himself, reveals just what happens when the proposal over which you've labored lands on a funder's desk.

When program officers sit around tiny tables in hotel bars after our days of funder meetings, we often talk about our grantees. This is the case for two reasons. For one thing, we might have little else in common besides our shared vocation. For another, program officers are forever trying to sell our grantees to each other. From the PO’s point of view, all we ever do is talk about grantees. From the grantee’s perspective, PO’s just don’t care about them. How can we understand this apparent disparity?

Grant making staff serve the interests of the foundation’s board of directors. Their job performance is measured by their employers – ultimately that same board – mostly according to the board’s perception of the quality of prospective grants offered to them by their staff.

The standards among our foundation’s staff in creating a board docket are based on our best estimate of what the foundation’s board that pays us wants us to do. Personal druthers shouldn’t come into it.

In past years, I have worked for a full year with a prospective grantee, learning all about their work, writing background papers, and pouring my best prose into a grant recommendation document for my board, only to jettison the entire grant in minutes during a board meeting, as my board signalled its lack of interest in that grant.

What does this dynamic between PO’s and funder boards mean for you, in your grant seeking? Specifically, how can you find out what you need to know about not only the foundation’s funding interests, but the program officer’s role?

The people who can help you most are probably others who have been funded by this same foundation, as well as study of prior years of that funder’s grant making in your area. It will help you to discover where this foundation is going with its grantmaking in your field.

Figuring out the foundation’s granting trajectory is the single most important step in casting your funding request. You don’t want to appear to be the champion of issues that the foundation is just about done with, and you also don’t want to promote ideas that are so far ahead of the funder that giving you a grant will exceed the foundation’s tolerance for risk.

A program officer can help you figure out how to cast your request to hit just the right point on the foundation’s grantmaking curve. Every funder has one. Not every program officer will welcome a request for this kind of strategic help, but it’s not likely to hurt if you to ask.

In addition to research on the foundation’s priorities, there’s getting the lowdown on that program officer. By whatever mysterious process you have been assigned to that foundation staff person, you are stuck with her, so you may as well learn to deal with her.

What is it that you want to know about your program officer at this point? It could help to learn her intellectual background, such as what she has published, what conference panels she’s presented on, where she went to school, and what was the subject of her dissertation. There’s no need to spend a lot of time on sleuthing, not to mention violating someone’s privacy. But I’ll never forget a frantic call from a friend who had gotten around to checking out a program officer he was scheduled to meet with in an hour. He discovered that she had done extensive field work and then written her dissertation on a topic that was the precise opposite of what his proposed project was advocating. Their subsequent meeting was, well, kind of tense.

While many if not most of us foundation staff try to base our work on what our board wants, more than a few program officers, especially those hired as “experts” in a given field, have their own agenda that might not be the same as the foundation’s. The gap between a program officer’s ideas about what should be funded and her employer’s can be the most hazardous terrain a grantee will face.

Many prospective grantees understandably try to cut their cloth to fit the one person from the foundation they can get on the phone, their program officer. They’ll bend – often with encouragement from the PO – the description of their work to fit what they are told is best, even when they know it’s not where the foundation seems to be heading. ‘Stick with me,” says the wayward PO, “I’m the wave of the future around here.”

I’ve had some painful conversations with both grantees and with foundation colleagues about this conundrum, which is not as rare as it should be. Here’s the consensus about what to do:
While renegade PO’s might stay on the job for a while, most don’t last. Since the grant in most cases is made by the foundation board, what they want is what counts.

If the program officer won’t stop pushing you in a direction that doesn’t fit the foundation (or your own organization), then it may be best to withdraw entirely, rather than risk putting your organization in the midst of a foundation conflict. Better to wait and let nature take its course, and try again when that PO’s replacement arrives.

A related issue for grantees is dealing with the program officer “expert.” On occasion you’ll encounter a program officer who is a real expert in your field, or you might come across someone who thinks she is, all evidence to the contrary. Now what do you do?

If you’re in the presence of a fellow expert, find every point of common ground, and build a professional relationship as you would with anyone else in your field. If you find major points of divergence, keep yourself focused not on your disagreement with what the PO thinks, but on what her foundation wants. Your single goal is as always to get money from the foundation. Since there are many more prospective grantees than there are funders, you should back away from irreconcilable disagreement – professional debates are best left out of your grant seeking to-do list.
What about the other occasion, when one of us thinks we know all about the field and you think we don’t? When I asked one of my long-time grantees what his number one foundation myth was, he instantly said, “Program officers who think they’re experts.” Laughing, I told him that my favorite myth about grant seekers was “Grantees who think we’re idiots.”

While foundations can make mistakes in hiring like anyone else, most colleagues I know are quite well qualified to be doing the work they’re doing. Funders can afford to hire the best. And just because you think a program officer is arrogant or unreasonable, is no reason to conclude that they’re uninformed or unable to think clearly.

You might tell yourself, when you meet your PO for the first time, “these people pay well and can hire the best search firms. This person must be on the payroll for a good reason. Let’s see what that might be.”

One last thing about the putative and actual ignorance of funders.

People contact me all the time to say that they want to have a meeting about something they acknowledge we don’t fund. They say they want to educate us about the issues. It’s my view that in the majority of cases, these educational efforts are misplaced and a waste of precious non-profit resources.

If you want to meet with me about something that I know my employers aren’t interested in, I’m doing us both a favor to say, “Sorry, not interested.” If you conclude from that response that I’m arrogant or ignorant or both, so be it. But as I see it, I’m focused, serving my employers well, and using the limited resources of the foundation in just the right way.

A disciplined funder will rebuff attempts at unsolicited education, instead focusing her learning on creating and implementing a learning plan that will advance her foundation’s understanding and grantmaking in the direction it has chosen. What is frequently characterized as an unwillingness to learn is actually how purposeful, competent staff look when they’re doing their job.

People who meet on opposite sides of a power and information gap will invariably encounter each other with misgivings. The more we can inform ourselves about each other, and acknowledge shared tasks and priorities, the better it will go for all.

Martin Teitel is Executive Director of the Cedar Tree Foundation, a private foundation and the author of Thank You for Submitting Your Proposal, by Emerson & Church. Previously he served as Senior Fellow and Executive Director of the CS Fund, a philanthropic foundation, and also Western Field Director for a public charity, The Youth Project.

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