In our “post-truth” world, we are all overwhelmed by information. In-person interactions struggle to compete with the ceaseless barrage of push notifications popping up on our mobile devices. Attention, trust, and full presence are now among our scarcest resources.
But to build meaningful relationships, those things are exactly what we need, in both our personal and professional lives. Attention and presence are relatively easy — they take a bit of self-awareness, alertness, and willingness. Trust is different: It is challenging to build, especially within asymmetric relationships and when money is part of the conversation — both of which are marks of the relationship between program officers and grantees.
In my (still short, I think) life as a program officer, I have heard that what grantees need from funders are transparency, clear communications, and responsiveness. Humility is often mentioned as well, and I must confess it surprises me that someone working in the philanthropic sector must be reminded of the importance of being humble.
I believe that building trust takes even more than that. It takes courage to tell the truth about our own limits and strengths. Building trust challenges us to bring our own vulnerability to the table, which means being honest about our doubts and about what we don’t know. In times like these, I have a hard time trusting people who claim certainty about too many things.
Having good relationships with grantees — and, at the end of the day, good grantmaking as a whole — demands that professionals working in the philanthropic world show genuine interest in other people’s knowledge and experience, and offer good questions (not just advice) in conversations. A successful grant should never be about a program officer’s goals or convictions in the first place. It should be about identifying and appreciating what each side of the table — funder and grantee — can do best together.
Of course, this is not so simple when you’re closing a portfolio, making final grants, or dramatically changing a strategy. Those are the moments when it’s even more crucial to be empathic and candid, and to check, whenever possible, that your discourse is coherent with your actions and takes into consideration the grantee’s needs — even though you won’t be able to positively respond to all their expectations. Fortunately, there are methodologies and techniques that can be very helpful to support such efforts.
Being able to establish clear boundaries makes a difference for the program officer as an individual and as a professional, and for the organizations they support. In program officers’ eagerness to be successful — and even to be admired in the field — it’s easy to lose sight of the difference between being a thought partner and a mentor; between being a supporter and a friend; between a partner and a sister- or brother-in-arms.
It is a program officer’s responsibility to make sure these boundaries are clear. And it is not an easy job. Being clear about the right channels, moments, and language through which to communicate and interact with grantees demands a great deal of diplomacy, politeness, and discipline from a program officer who is working to protect the grantee, themselves, and the institution they represent. Clarity about boundaries saves a great amount of energy, financial resources, and time, all of which are needed to establish a strong, professional relationship between the program officer and the grantee. It also ensures that program officers can be comfortable saying no when it’s necessary, and doing so in a constructive, respectful way.
Many people working towards social justice, fairness, and equality are dreamers. In developing relationships with the organizations committed to those goals, it’s important for funders not to lose sight of that perspective. Being part of people’s dreams (whether we support them financially or not) is a huge responsibility — but it’s also a huge honor and presents real opportunities for promoting positive, lasting change.
Advancing social justice, democracy, and rights takes much more than donors with significant resources and great strategies on one side, and grantees with ambitious plans, a strong work ethic, and compelling narratives on the other. The work of social change also takes a great deal of compassion, common sense, and boldness — to say yes, to say no, to make a bet — no matter which side of the table you’re sitting on.
All of this is why, whenever anyone asks me how to build meaningful relationships while serving as a grantmaker (or, for that matter, serving in any position, in any field, with any level of power), I always say: Connect — fully. Be empathic. Be yourself, unabashedly.
That’s the best you can do.
Graciela Selaimen is a program officer in Ford Foundation’s Brazil office.
She is one of 11 program officers CEP interviewed for its new report, Relationships Matter: Program Officers, Grantees, and the Keys to Success.