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Going Beyond Innovating: Reimagining the Program Officer Role

Date: April 18, 2024

Sarah Moody

Director of Community Relationships, Missouri Foundation for Health

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This is the fourth and final in a series of posts contributed by the Feedback Incentives Learning Group, a group of funders convened by Feedback Labs that are dedicated to encouraging peer funders to listen to the people most harmed by the systems and structures they seek to change. In this blog series, learning group members share advice for how grantmaking staff can listen and respond to the people who are most impacted by their work.

I started my role at Missouri Foundation for Health 12 years ago as a traditional program officer. Even then, after a long history of working for nonprofits, I always thought the title program officer was confusing. It made me think of a loan officer controlling money and decisions, or a police officer who was there to serve and protect, but also was in a position of power.

Last week, a fellow member of the Feedback incentives Learning Group discussed how program officers can make space for listening within the confines of their existing roles in this blog. These are important steps, and for many, may be the most accessible way to incorporate more effective listening, trust-building, and power-sharing into their work as program officers. But if the confines of our roles as program officers don’t allow us to listen well, they need to change. And if our own internal roles and structures aren’t in our control as grantmakers, how can we claim to be trying to change the world? This blog is about reimagining the roles we play to make room for listening.

At Missouri Foundation for Health (MFH) we have been doing just that — internally reimagining our roles to make more space for relationship building, listening, authentically engaging with communities, and exploring new ways of working. These shifts have been prompted by tough questions we’ve had to ask ourselves:

  • How are we ever going to be effective at addressing root causes of health inequities through systems change if we are not willing to change our own internal systems?
  • How do we build real relationships if we are not willing to be honest and transparent about our own faults, learnings, and willingness to grow?
  •  How do we serve and collaborate with communities across Missouri if we are not actively engaged with, living in, learning from, and involving community members?

In our reflection, we acknowledged that the traditional program officer did not fit the mission, values, or vision of the Foundation. As MFH evolved, so did our titles and positions. We realized that for us to do our work well, really engage with community, and to achieve health equity we needed to do our own internal reorganization. Two things we have done thus far are:

  • Changing Job Descriptions: We understand the language we use for staff positions means something. A thoughtful process of reflection led us to shift away from the traditional title of program officer and lean into titles such as strategist that more appropriately align with our work. We shifted the job descriptions to give our staff more flexibility to engage with community and listen in whatever way is needed to help develop strategies.
  • Creating New Positions: Traditionally, staff at MFH lived in the St. Louis area, even though we also serve 84 other predominantly rural counties. We piloted a community liaison position to see what having staff living and working full time in rural counties might yield. The role proved to be so helpful in providing context, insights, and building authentic relationships that we now have a team of community liaisons embedded in three regions of our state. We also learned that removing grantmaking responsibilities from the role created less of a power imbalance and gave the community liaison a better ability to be a true partner in learning, listening, and collaboration without partners feeling like funding was at stake.

Making these changes wasn’t easy. MFH staff felt both excitement and angst as our job descriptions were updated, titles were changed, and some of us moved into different roles. I think many of us recognized that we had some internal autonomy and power to make more room for community engagement, even if it was just as simple as tweaking job descriptions or a title. We also realized that in lieu of having specific duties outlined in our roles, we all have some flexibility in the undefined activities of our job descriptions and should not be confined by what is stated on paper.

I have the honor of talking about this work of reimagining our internal structures with other foundations and partners who are attempting to make space for better listening and community engagement. I share that they should be prepared for the emotions and personal dynamics that internal changes bring, have a plan for communicating with staff, and a process to help staff adjust to new roles. In particular, any foundation reimagining the program officer role should be ready to navigate:

  • Cultural Shift: The most significant challenge we faced in shifting towards community engagement was the need for cultural transformation. Like most foundations, MHF traditionally operated under hierarchical structures, where decisions are made by a select few within the organization. Transitioning to a model that values collaboration, transparency, and shared decision-making required a fundamental shift in our mindset and organizational culture. This is still a work in progress, and we are navigating this complex dynamic.
  • Overcoming Inertia: Foundations, often large and bureaucratic institutions, are resistant to change. Deeply ingrained processes and structures can function as barriers to innovation and progress. At MFH, overcoming institutional inertia requires courageous leadership, a willingness to challenge the status quo, and a commitment to continuous learning and improvement. By recognizing we are undertaking a process that will require continuous course corrections, we hope to unlock staff willingness to experiment, take risks, and learn from both successes and failures.
  • Resource Allocation: Meaningful community engagement requires resources — both financial and human — and so does the process to reimagine internal roles. Foundations must allocate funds and staffing for activities such as community outreach, capacity building, and relationship building. We need to demonstrate a long-term commitment to partnerships and being responsive to community needs. This also requires that we close the feedback loop and help community members and partners understand what we are doing with the information they have shared with us. This does not have to always be in the form of multiple staff positions, but rather in reimagining and prioritizing the responsibilities of existing roles.
  • Measuring Impact: Traditional metrics of success in philanthropy, such as dollars disbursed or projects funded, may not adequately capture the impact of community engagement. Foundations must grapple with how to measure outcomes such as trust, community empowerment, and relationship building—a task that is inherently more qualitative and nuanced.

The process of self-reflection and transformation that takes us towards community engagement is not a straightforward one, but it is worth undertaking. It sometimes feels like we are in mile one of a marathon, but we are making progress. By confronting our challenges head-on and embracing the insights gleaned from what we learn, foundations can forge more authentic, equitable, and impactful partnerships with the communities they serve. Together, we can build a future where power is shared, voices are heard, and everyone has the opportunity to thrive.

Sarah Moody, MS, is director of community relationships at Missouri Foundation for Health.

Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.

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