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The Abbott Approach: Innovating in the Program Officer Role

Date: April 11, 2024

Mary Coleman

Fellowship Program Manager, Voqal

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This is the third 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 love Abbott Elementary. The ABC mockumentary is an unapologetic look at the U.S. public education system. While it’s hyper-focused on one underfunded elementary school in Philadelphia, the parallels of working in a bureaucratic organization run far outside the school walls. The teachers want to deliver curriculum and care for students but spend time overcoming administrative barriers just to meet basic needs. Sound familiar?

Program officers enter philanthropy to connect community needs to solutions, but reports and presentations overshadow the ability to do this with intention. They consistently give feedback about not having the time, resources, or agency to integrate the effective listening practices outlined in the first blog in this series.

To alleviate the tensions and challenges of grant management, we need to change the boundaries of the program officer role. We need to recalibrate what’s prioritized and possible when working with grantees. We’ll examine what this means — and what it could look like — in this blog, and, in our next post in this series, Sarah Moody will explore how we can reimagine our boundaries to strengthen feedback loops.

Here, we will focus on how we can innovate within our current boundaries. Teachers find ways to respond to their students’ needs even when the system stacks against them. Similarly, program officers can access the time, resources, and agency to open opportunities for listening and responding between their organization and grantees.

Acknowledge Your Time is Limited

With paperwork for application, contracts, and reports, a program officer’s time revolves around forms. I manage Voqal’s fellowship program, a grant for individuals working with their community for social change. I often feel stuck in a bureaucratic cycle of applications, interviews, and logistics.

But these are all essential aspects of the program, and I need to fulfill specific elements of the fellowship. It was often debilitating when I considered doing all this and implementing intentional listening practices. As Abbott teacher Melissa Schemmenti says, “I don’t have time for this. Life is hard enough as it is. Now I got two classes worth of grades to finish and a tire to replace.”

How could I move through the grantmaking cycle more quickly without compromising its integrity? Where were the process bottlenecks? One answer for me was removing redundant questions from our fellowship application, which saved me hours a week while still allowing me to assess an applicant’s proposal adequately. This let me free up some of the time I’d spend on checklist activities and use it to build deeper relationships with the fellows I was supporting.

Implementation Tip

Consider how you currently connect with your grantees: applications, site visits, phone calls, and reports. Is there one question you ask on an application or at site visits that you can remove to ask for feedback instead? Are there other steps in your grantmaking process where you can use tools to save time and free up opportunities to listen?

Be Transparent About Resources

Once you’ve freed up some time to listen, figuring out how to do that well can be challenging. There are so many approaches for engaging with grantees and communities. Determining the best method to listen (and respond!) can feel just as overwhelming, if not more so, than implementing the practices.

After four years of the Voqal fellowship, we wanted to ask the alums’ input on how to support them after the program ended. With a diverse community across the United States, we had to be thoughtful about our approach to listening and acting on what we heard.

I wanted to do everything with credibility, realizing the alums may not feel open to giving feedback if the process felt off. I was also anxious about what we would hear, not because I didn’t think it would be necessary, but because I was concerned about what we could deliver. I wanted to avoid what teachers know: students will shut down if they are not comfortable or trust you will act.

I went to peer funders with fellowship programs and asked them how they sought feedback from alumni of their programs. This allowed us to quickly sort through effective listening options without spending a lot of time on research. We were then upfront with the alums about the available budget to respond to their comments, which helped us keep the solutions we brainstormed together feasible.

Implementation Tip

Consider your feedback goals and listening practices you might like to embrace. Can you ask an aligned funder what resources they found helpful or what they would do differently, so you can concentrate the research and avoid costly missteps? Can you enter spaces with grantees and community members with complete transparency about the available resources? Can you ensure an openness to finding feasible solutions together?

Use Your Agency

The conundrum of being a program officer is that we often hear things for which we don’t have the authority to respond. Sometimes, the limits on our agency are very real. But often, we can find ways to act within the limits of our roles.

Teachers at Abbott Elementary consistently act in response to what they hear, even if it means changing lightbulbs themselves. They demonstrate that if a student needs better lighting in a hallway to feel safe, they will address it — within their limits.

During the first years of the fellowship program, we paired each fellow with a mentor. A core aspect of the program was offering individualized capacity-building opportunities. We heard through reports and calls that this experience was uneven for the fellows. Some immediately connected with their mentor, while others had more difficulty finding a groove.

I thought about the essential factors. We needed to provide support and had a set budget to achieve it. If pairing fellows with unique mentors wasn’t working, could we identify common skills they wanted to develop and identify a smaller set of coaches for everyone? The fellows would get the same individualized attention, and we could use the same budget by bringing in fewer consultants available to all fellows.

If had tried to totally redevelop the program I would have needed board approval. I could have told the fellows, sorry, we have a mentorship model, so take it or leave it. But by taking a moment to realize what I had control over — choosing opportunities with approved funds — I made a change and showed the fellows that I would respond to their feedback. Finding ways to respond within our agency allows us to operate in a cycle of hear, try, refine rather than hear, idle, file.

Implementation Tip

Consider everything you have control over in your role and the feedback you’ve heard from grantees and community members. Can you identify ways to change in response to feedback, even if it is small? Do you have a trusted peer with whom you can share your ideas and discuss the risks of changing and of maintaining the status quo? This way, you can plan for scenarios and gain confidence in your decisions. You may also inspire others to lean into their agency.

As program officers, we have a lot to juggle in our roles. Like the teachers at Abbott Elementary, we often feel we lack the time, resources, and agency to slow down and listen. But we can find new routines and practices that fit within the limits of our roles and allow us to show grantees and communities that we listen and follow through. In that collaborative mindset, beautiful transformation can happen.

Mary Coleman is the fellowship program manager at Voqal. Find her on LinkedIn.

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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