Magnified Side of the Mirror

Karin Demarest

Most mornings I keep the mirror on the regular side, preferring a casual glance from a safe distance. On occasion I’ll flip the mirror to the magnifying side, boldly exploring the deeper reaches in hopes of learning something new. The results may not always be pleasing, but the effort often informs a new course of action.

I study data in a similar fashion — diving in eagerly on occasion even when the discoveries may challenge current assumptions. It was with this same genuine enthusiasm that I approached CEP’s latest research publication, Benchmarking Program Officer Roles and Responsibilities. With very little current data on the status of program officers, the report provides fascinating points that can inform and strengthen how we support this vital role in our organizations.

At Community Foundation Sonoma County we have a mighty staff of 13, with three of us devoted to programmatic grantmaking; a program coordinator, a program officer, and a vice president for programs (my role). We are collaborative by design, so it was natural for us to study the CEP report as a team and identify what delighted us, what made us cautious, and — most importantly — what we would take away from the data and do differently as a result.

Here’s what we discovered:

  1. Program officers are highly educated. A full 70 percent of survey respondents in the study hold a master’s or doctoral degree — and yet only 16 percent see a clear path to advancement at their foundations. As a field, we are at risk of losing these individuals’ deep knowledge, motivation, and relationships with grantees if we are unable to provide meaningful challenges and opportunities for our program officers. This is a particularly vexing problem for small foundations. How might we cultivate growth opportunities beyond the obvious steps up the career ladder?
  2. Program officers find their work meaningful. An impressive 94 percent of program officers agree that their career is meaningful. Finding meaning in our work is a key indicator of engagement, health, and happiness — states of being we seek to foster in our teams. Yet when looking at the data around how program officers spend their time, it’s worth noting that 75 percent say internal administration should take up less of their time to be most effective in their role. We have all heard the call to streamline; the data shows that we’d be well served to realize greater internal efficiencies — for everyone’s sake.
  3. Program officers have key insights into nonprofit organizations. At the center of the program officer’s role is the relationship with the nonprofit community. When survey respondents indicate that only 39 percent of nonprofit organizations have the knowledge necessary to assess the results of their work — and a meager nine percent have the necessary resources for assessment — a significant need is revealed. However, program officers don’t necessarily prioritize supporting grantees in this way, since only 28 percent say that if they had more time to spend with grantees, they would spend that additional time helping grantees with technical or procedural areas such as evaluation. Why this disconnect? This question warrants further consideration in a world where showing evidence towards outcomes is paramount.

These are only a few select data points outlined in Benchmarking Program Officer Roles and Responsibilities. Our leadership team will continue to cull the report for data that can inform our practices, but for now we are focusing on three key next steps:

  1. With a well-educated, highly motivated program officer that wants to stay in the field, we will seek to find opportunities for growth beyond the obvious, including cross-departmental training and participation.
  2. Coupling the desire to streamline internal administration with the knowledge that our program officer and I each fall into the one-quarter of respondents with 70 or more active grants, we are going to take a hard look at our grantmaking practices, particularly the size of our grants.
  3. Like many community foundations, at Sonoma County we support programs building their evaluation muscle through initiatives like Upstream Investments. In order to leverage the unique partnership our program officer has created with the grantees in her portfolio, while addressing the evaluation needs of our nonprofit partners, we will: 1.) prioritize evaluation training as a professional development goal; and 2.) consider a shift in focus towards capacity building in our grantmaking practices.

Studying ourselves in the magnified side of the mirror is a luxury; we don’t often have access to data that allows us to explore our cracks and crevices. CEP’s publication is worthy of a careful look. Program officers are a critical asset to foundations, often holding our greatest value proposition — the knowledge of, and relationships with, the nonprofit community. Let’s be certain we are supporting, challenging, and adjusting our practices to meet the worthy needs of those in a role so core to our work.

Read the Report

Karin Demarest is vice president for programs at Community Foundation Sonoma County.

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