It’s All about the People

Ellie Buteau

In my position at CEP, I have experienced what it is like to navigate funders’ individual guidelines and requirements. I know sometimes selection processes can feel like jumping through a series of irrelevant hoops rather than useful experiences. And I’ve been through the frustration of a funder not understanding CEP’s goals or strategies — and not being interested in doing so because they believe they know all they need to know.

Thankfully, I also know the markedly different experience of having funders who genuinely understand the mission of CEP and the research we do. I can recall times when funders have been right there beside us when we experience challenges in our work. Or others that have reached out to let us know how and when their own goals or strategies might be shifting, inviting us to provide input and be a part of the process. Their understanding and openness have made us feel that we can reach out when a problem arises in the work they are funding us to do; and they have responded with support when we have reached out to communicate about challenges.

CEP works to support foundation effectiveness, and we are a grantee of many foundations. That’s why today’s release of our newest research feels more personal than do most of our reports. In Relationships Matter: Program Officers, Grantees, and the Keys to Success, we share findings based on the experiences of almost 20,000 grantees of more than 80 foundations, with the goal of providing insights that will help funders and nonprofits develop strong working relationships.

These working relationships form the groundwork that enables grantees to feel they can get in touch with their program officer if they need information, or let their funder know when the work is not going according to plan. These relationships ultimately determine what it’s like for a grantee to work with a funder. And, most importantly, these are the experiences that either fuel or impede a nonprofit’s progress towards its goals. 

In this new report, we also hone in on the importance of the program officer. Relationships happen between people. Someone at a grantee organization is communicating with someone at a foundation. And most frequently, that someone at a foundation is the grantee’s program officer.

Based on ratings from CEP’s Grantee Perception Report (GPR), we were able to segment ratings provided by grantees about their experience working with foundations to identify program officers whose grantees report having the strongest relationships with their funders. We interviewed 11 of these program officers, and in the report share their insights about their practices and the philosophies that guide their work. We are grateful that these program officers were willing to be so open about their approaches to their work. They brought concrete stories to a topic that can often seem abstract, and provided examples of why strong relationships between funders and grantees are so crucial for creating change in the world.

I invite you to download and read the report to hear these program officers’ insightful stories and learn about what my colleagues and I at CEP found in our analyses.

I also invite you to join me for a webinar this Thursday at 2:00 pm EST to go deeper on the topic of funder-grantee relationships. I’ll be presenting our research findings and my colleague, Phil Buchanan, will moderate what promises to be a lively discussion with three of the program officers featured in the report: Irfan Hasan of the New York Community Trust, Sarah Lovan of the McKnight Foundation, and Teresa Rivero of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Ellie Buteau is vice president, research, at CEP. Follow her on Twitter at @e_buteau.

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