Q&A: Insights from Program Officers

Ethan McCoy

Last fall, CEP released Relationships Matter: Program Officers, Grantees, and the Keys to Success, a report that takes an in-depth and data-driven look at what it takes for funders to build and maintain strong relationships with grantees. Our analysis of grantee perception data finds that the program officer to whom a grantee is assigned plays a crucial role in the strength of these relationships, and to that end, the report features insights gleaned from interviews with 11 program officers whose grantees provided high ratings about their funder experience through CEP’s Grantee Perception Report (GPR).

In November, CEP hosted a webinar that featured discussion among a panel of three of those exemplary program officers highlighted in the report. The webinar conversation was an engaging one, so much so that we ran out of time and were unable to get to a number of important questions attendees posed to the panel.

So we sent out those questions to several of the program officers featured in the report. Here are the answers we heard from Sarah Lovan (Program Officer, Arts, The McKnight Foundation), Nick Randell (Program Officer, The Peter and Elizabeth C. Tower Foundation), and Jackie Hausman (Program Officer, Health, Kenneth Rainin Foundation).

Q: How do you approach the difficult conversation with a grantee or applicant to inform them that you are not able to fund a program?

Sarah Lovan: With clarity and honesty. These are some of the most important conversations we have in this work. I try very hard to communicate clearly and honestly when foundation dollars are not a fit for an organization. Being clear about the reasoning behind the decision, and being honest about the probability of a grant in the future, have proven to be two critical pieces of information to share.

I also provide at least one or two other funding ideas. Sometimes people working in philanthropy have the most up-to-date knowledge regarding funding trends and priorities of other funders. This is helpful insight to pass on to grantees and grant-seekers alike. (Caveat: I typically check with the other funder before I make an email introduction out of respect. Also, I never, ever speak on behalf of another funder.)

And last but not least, always thank them for their time and effort. It’s amazing how many times I hear from folks that other funders don’t say those simple, yet powerful, words of respect.

Q: What are effective ways to transition relationships between grantees and newly hired program officers?

Nick Randell: This will probably vary depending on the complexity of the grant in question. For fairly simple grants, we would notify a grantee in writing ahead of time and then complete the transition to the new program officer in the course of a site visit or, in some cases, a remote conference call. For more complex grants, and deeper relationships, we would probably consider a transition period of six months or so where the original program officer and the new hire essentially co-monitor the grant.

Q: How do your grantees engage with other staff members at the foundation? When and how are staff besides program officers supporting the funder-grantee relationship? What are the pitfalls and benefits of those approaches?

Jackie Hausman: An important part of my role as a program officer is to be the central point of contact and primary resource for grantees. Rather than grantees needing to contact staff in various departments (e.g. grants management, accounting), I serve as the primary contact, and facilitate all grantee communications related to financial, administrative, and operational issues. Our grantees are generally universities, and due to their complex institutional structure, it is a lot easier if they have a single point of contact for their various departments.

Q: What advice do you have for a founder or board member at a foundation with a very small staff to build relationships with grantees?

Lovan: Do what you can. I don’t believe there is a way to do this work that fits in every situation. I do believe that if you listen to what grantees want, and assess what your staff is willing/able to give (both time and money), you’ll be able to find a middle ground. In some cases utilizing an intermediary organization can be useful. That way you have one relationship to maintain, but benefit from the knowledge that the intermediary is building deeper relationships with the grantees than you are. And, in some cases, I actually don’t think a grantee wants to have to develop a ton of deep relationships with funders. I think that even a brief, yet respectful, interaction can be effective and impactful.

Q: What have you seen grantees do that helps make the funder-grantee relationship successful?

Randell: As a program officer, I really appreciate brief, unsolicited program updates. Even emails that are just a few sentences long can help program officers feel more connected to the grants in their portfolio. And they need not be frequent. Consider filling that six-month stretch between a site visit and an interim report with one or two quick correspondences. This works for program officers, too. There’s no reason not to check in with grantees on things not directly related to a program officer’s grant monitoring function. Pass on an article of interest, invite them to submit a guest blog post.

Q: In instances that require being responsive and changing strategy with grantees, how do you balance those actions with the need to be accountable to your board and maintaining pre-set agendas?

Lovan: Great question. I’d love to know the answer! My approach is based on effectiveness, trust, impact, and the tolerance of the board/staff for flexibility and risk. The tolerance for risk is a great conversation to have with your board. If at the core of the work your board and staff are aligned on general principles, I think you have a great opportunity to see how adaptive you can get with the rest.


Ethan McCoy is senior writer – development and communications at CEP.

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